There’s a scene in the music video for “Anti-Hero,” the lead single off Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights, where Swift is seen writing on a pad of paper. She’s taking notes as one of her alter-egos aggressively points to a chalkboard with the very Swift-ian principle “Everyone will betray you” written on it, so it’s easy to miss a tiny but strange detail on screen: the way student-Swift is holding her pen. The most commonly accepted way of holding a pen or pencil is with one’s thumb and index finger, but that’s not where Swift’s pen is: She’s holding it between her index and middle finger. It’s not an altogether polite question to pose in connection to such an accomplished writer, but seeing it, you might be tempted to ask, “Uh, has this woman ever held a pen before?”
She very much has held a pen before, of course. There have been dozens of pictures and videos of Swift holding pens and pencils taken throughout her career, and in a lot of them, she’s holding it in this same uncommon way. If you do a quick Google, you might be shocked to discover just how many photos there are out there of Swift signing autographs and writing lyrics with a pen between the “wrong” fingers, and you might get to wondering if actually you’re the weird one for never noticing. It’s something that certainly hasn’t escaped her biggest fans’ notice over the years, and they’ve created Reddit threads, Quora threads, and even memes on the topic: “Holding a pencil vs. holding a pencil (Taylor’s version),” goes one. And though the conservative website the Federalist chose to use Swift’s pen posture as an excuse to publish a blog post charmingly headlined “Taylor Swift Holds Her Pen Like an Absolute Psycho” (Excerpt: “How about instead of ‘f-cking the patriarchy’ we learn how to hold a writing utensil, mmmk?”), we decided that rather than rushing to judgment, we’d call up the experts, starting with one occupational therapist who’s taught children how to hold their pens and pencils.
“I would say she’s protecting her joints, and if it’s working for her, good for her,” said Cathy Richmond, a recently retired occupational therapist in the Omaha, Nebraska, area who spent 12 years working in schools. In other words, there’s no reason to worry that using this grasp could hurt Swift. Richmond admitted, though, “It is an unusual grip.” In all her time working in schools, it’s a grasp Richmond said she saw very rarely: “I’ve only had a very few kids that use it, and they were mostly kids with really low muscle tone.”
Still, I wanted to know more about why someone would adopt this grasp, so I called Cheryl Crow (no relation to the singer), an occupational therapist in the Seattle area, and a bit of a Swiftie, who’s actually made TikToks about how Taylor Swift holds her pen. “This grasp that she uses, there’s two main reasons people might use that, typically,” Crow told me. “One is that they’re hypermobile, or their joints move too much. And the other one is hand pain, or rheumatoid arthritis, specifically.” Crow guessed that Swift probably doesn’t suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, but she said hypermobility is a real possibility. Crow said hypermobility often goes along with low muscle tone, the cause Richmond mentioned, and Crow said that based on what she’s observed over time (from afar, of course), it’s possible that Swift could be hypermobile. “People who have hypermobility have a hard time—I’m never gonna criticize Queen Swift, but I do think it seems that she might have a hard time holding her posture.”
While the grasp might look strange to some, Crow said it’s a perfectly functional way to write. “The average schoolteacher, or parent, even, would look at that and be like, ‘Why are you holding your pen like that?’ But actually, I think Taylor Swift is a great example. Obviously, she’s one of the best writers of our generation. It obviously has not stopped her from writing. And so at the end of the day, the question is, ‘Is this grasp pattern functional and efficient for long-term writing?’ ” And for Swift, it looks like it has been. Crow said it’s more than possible to write legibly while using this pen grasp.
Crow said it used to be thought that there was really only one correct way to hold a pen or pencil, but that this thinking has evolved in the past 20 or so years. “My professors in my program 10 years ago made a big point to tell us people used to think the dynamic tripod was the only efficient one, but now it’s recognized that there’s four efficient, acceptable grasps.” And one of those acceptable grasps is “the adaptive tripod grasp, or the one that Taylor Swift uses,” Crow said. “I call it the Taylor Swift grasp, of course.”
Crow acknowledged that it’s possible there’s no meaning to the way Swift is holding her pen beyond it being a random habit she developed. “But a lot of people who have hypermobility find that stabilizing the pen or pencil between their pointer and middle finger is helpful, because when you hold it in the regular tripod grasp, which is where the end of the pencil goes between the web space between your thumb and your pointer finger, if you have really movable joints, it doesn’t give a lot of surface area touching the pencil and stabilizing it. So then if you put it between the pointer and middle finger, it’s a lot more stable because you’re holding it actually higher up on the pencil. It’s less likely to wiggle around and move out of place.”
Crow said kids usually establish a grasp for holding pens and pencils by the first or second grade, so in Taylor’s case, “I think it would be reasonable to think that she developed this pattern in the early elementary years,” she said. But she also thinks it’s possible that Swift adopted the grasp later on. Indeed, while photos from the past 15 years of Swift’s career consistently show the singer-songwriter using her current grip, a childhood photo suggests she might have used the more conventional style before she became a superstar. (We reached out to Taylor Swift’s publicist, Tree Paine, to see if they would comment, but as of publication time, we have not received a response.) “Many people who develop hypermobility or chronic pain, or other challenges later in life, they will change their grasps for that,” Crow said. One such challenge might include something like, say, signing extreme amounts of autographs on a regular basis.
“I would imagine if you’re signing a ton of autographs that this would actually be a helpful grasp because, first of all, changing up your grasp can just help with any sort of repetitive stress, right?” Crow said. Richmond surmised something similar. “Maybe pain drove her to it,” she said. “Maybe she was having some joint pain and decided, ‘Oh, I need to do something different’ and just stumbled across it. Maybe she talked to an OT.”
I wondered to Crow what would happen if any huge Swift fans were so enamored with the star that they wanted to start trying to hold a pen like her. “It’s pretty hard to permanently change your grasp after that point, but you certainly can,” she said. No one’s come to her seeking her expertise to start writing like Swift, but she wouldn’t rule out such a thing happening. “Anything is possible with this rabid fan base.”