I Love Typography

Who shot the serif?

One of the reasons for starting this site was that I felt there just wasn’t enough being said about the topic. Secondly, and more significantly, I always found it difficult to quickly locate typographic resources. The long-term aim of this blog is to be such a resource, a one-stop-shop for everything about typography, from terminology to new typefaces, from inspirational examples of type to choosing the best typeface for the job, whether that be on- or off-line.


So without further ado, let’s take a look at type terminology. Now, before my alliteration sends you running, let me say that there is nothing to fear. But why should you be interested in the terminology of type? Does it really matter if I don’t know my ascenders and serifs from my descenders and diacritics?

Well, what you will discover, is that learning just a little about the terminology will help you to have a greater appreciation for type; it will also help you to identify different typefaces and fonts — and that in turn will help you make better, more informed choices about the fonts you use. Oh, and lastly, you’ll learn what fish scales and serifs have in common.

Today we’re going to get intimate with the serif (you’ll learn more about her friends in future Typography Terms posts):


One of the terms of type that most are familiar with is “Serif” and is easily distinguishable from Sheriff — John Wayne has shot and killed several sheriffs; to the best of my knowledge, he has never out-gunned a serif. Serifs are often small, but they’re tough.

Before writing this, I sent several questions on type terminology to friends who know little about the topic. Most answered “What’s a Serif?” with something like, “it’s the curly bits at the ends of letters”. And although you are unlikely to read that in a typography text book, that’s just about right (though they’re not always curly, of course).

So why the word “serif”? Well, it’s commonly held that the origin of the humble serif can be traced back to ancient Rome. Before an Inscription was carved into stone the letters were first painted on. Anyone who has tried painting letters will know that one is left with slightly wider sections at the ends of the brush-strokes. The stone carvers would then faithfully carve out the letters including the flares at the end of the strokes — thus was born the serif.

However, it looks as though no-one knows much about the etymology of the word “serif”; some say that it comes from the Dutch schreef, meaning “wrote”, while other sources say the term “sanserif” actually pre-dates serif, so that sanserif on its own simply meant without serif (though that begs the question, where did the word sanserif originate?).

Interestingly the equivalent term in Japanese, uruko, means fish scales, and in Chinese the term, translated literally into English, comes out as “forms with/made with legs”. The Chinese one is perhaps the most descriptive. So if someone tells you to “give it legs”, you’ll know that they are requesting a serif font. And if someone shouts “he has no legs!”, then I guess they’re looking at Helvetica.

The TypoWiki defines a serif thus:
A serif is a flare at the end of a letter terminal.

And Wikipedia as:
non-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols.

There are numerous kinds of serif. The two main types are Adnate and Abrupt (these are further subdivided into many more groups which we’ll look at in future). The Adnate serif is more organic. Notice how the serifs join the the stems via a curve; the Abrupt Serif — as its name suggests — is squarer and more rigid, and doesn’t flow into the base letterform; the slab serif is a good example of an abrupt serif. It’s not rude; it’s just square.


A slab serif is an example of an abrupt serif. This font is called Xenia OT

In future articles we’ll be taking a closer look at these related topics:
Serifs, in and out of fashion;
Serif or Sans serif — which should I use?
Great serif typefaces for Web and print.

Well, that’s all for today on serifs. Actually, there’s a lot more that can be said, but I’ll give your scroll-bar a rest. In future posts we’ll be taking a look at more typography terminology. Eventually, I hope to publish this series as a free PDF, so stay tuned for Part II by subscribing.

Have you learned something?

Part 2: The Return of the Serif.



  1. Only yesterday I was wondering what the hell “serif” meant! Thanks for a really informative article - I look forward to reading the rest!

  2. I wasn’t aware of the names of the various types of serifs in typefaces, so thats pretty neat to find that out. I’m looking forward to more informative articles like this. I don’t come from a graphic design background so learning about the details of typefaces is pretty darn interesting.

    PS: I “laughed out loud” at the serif joke.

  3. My anti-spam word is “sans”, which leads me to my question: Which one is more common, sans serif or sanserif? I didn’t know the latter and the french “sans” makes sense to me.

  4. Eventhough i always had a high interest in typography (always loved it as a child when my dad made handmade whats-on-sale-ads for our supermarket - his typography was a miracle to me back then - “how is that possible, that his characters look always the same?” - and i guess i spend a fortune ruining his markers and the heavy papers), i never managed to memorize those “things”. But you are right, most likely it will give me “better, more informed choices about the fonts” i use.

    I’m staying subscripted! ;)

    T-Shirt Link

    Thought it fits ;)

  5. Thanks for covering the basics in this article. I knew what a serif was of course, but many of these other terms I was unfamiliar with.

  6. Kyle
    I’m pleased you enjoyed it. See you around for the next in the series.

    Good to see you here again. You see, Typography is fun ;)

    Sans Serif, or just simply Sans is most common. Though, sans-serif and sanserif is acceptable too. For the sake of consistency, I think I’ll stick to Sans Serif in future.

    That’s good to hear. I don’t suppose you still have any of those signs? That’s a great T-Shirt too!

    Thank you. There are many more subdivisions too; at least another five, and some of those I further sub-divided. Fascinating isn’t it, that something which for the most part goes unnoticed has such a complex heritage.
    I think that your name would make a great typeface: Randa Serif.

  7. Régis Kuckaertz

    Thank you very much, that’s exactly what I was looking for. A great read, I can’t wait to read the next issues.

  8. Mate, i was wondering about the same when i wrote that reply! Have to check when at parents.

  9. Well, he is alive! :D I’ll ask him for a “I love typography” sign in his supermarket style. Maybe he will do one, depends on his mood (he’s a bit cranky from time to time) :)

    I remember that he had two huge selfmade posters on the wall as cheatsheets, those would rock! But the supermarket is now rented to a corp, have to sneak into the back and see if it’s still hanging there!

  10. Kai


    if the signs are handmade they’re not typographic, but signpainting or lettering (or maybe even calligraphy)

    typography is writing with prefabricated letters, not making letters.

    nevertheless, let’s see them!

  11. Kai, that’s right, but there was this cheatsheet on the wall - and if i can find that one, then i can scan it in and push it thru a bitmap to font app: My dad on a mac, that’s waaay out! :D Then i can safely say: “I love typography”.

    “typography is writing with prefabricated letters, not making letters.” - so those letters, where did they came from? ;)

  12. Wow, John! You’ve had a great response to this article! I’m publishing one in just a bit along similar lines. I guess our blogs will complement each other over the next week or so. I’ll be sure to add a link over here. This was great!

    Of course I learned something! I really loved your peek into the etymology of “serif” and also the history of where they came from. That stuff is fascinating to me! And I was unaware of the two major categories of serifs. I only new about the five: old style, transitional, modern, slab and splayed. I guess each of these fit into one of those two you mentioned?

  13. Love your headline! Some of these terms are new to me too. Its amazing you think you know quite a bit about design then realise how much there is left to learn.

  14. Régis
    I’m really pleased you enjoyed it. Thank you.

    At this rate, you’re going to win the coveted iLT Type-Nut award ;)
    I wonder what he’d say to seeing his work online.
    Oh, and after about 7 hours, I just got the “subscripted” pun. That’s given me an idea for something.

    Welcome to iLT, and thanks for your comment. You make a very valid point. Are you the same Kai who designed the Lyon typefaces?

    Thank you. I thought you’d enjoy some etymology. I have lots more to come. I’m working on a kind of serif “family” tree. And yes, you’re right to call adnate and abrupt major categories or classifications; and these in turn comprise other sub-categories and some even sub-sub-categories. The diagram I’m working on will make more sense of this—it’s going to be a big one!
    I’m looking forward to reading your posts.

    Thank you. I’m learning too! Though, I wish the process were faster.

  15. Sanman

    Although I already knew something, I learned quite a lot today, and that’s nice. Keep on with the project (the site), I like it very much.

    PS: I’m quite new on the typography topic and I’ve looking for some application to organize, search and sort my fonts. I know a nice one for windows (don’t remember the name now) and have heard about Suitcase for Mac OS X. In fact I’m a Mac user, so I’m more interested in the OS X one, but it’s never bad to know what’s in the market. Hope you shed some light on this for me. Thx

  16. Sanman
    That’s good to hear. Thank you.
    Suitcase Fusion is the only font manager I’d recommend for Mac OS. It’s about $100, I think, but integrates well with InDesign, Quark and Illustrator.
    See you here again soon.

  17. In my typography class in college, I had a professor who had another origin of serifs.

    He mentioned that visually stems, when viewed from a distance, appeared to squish inward in relation to the middle of the stem, arm, ascender, etc, and to counter this, serifs were added to make them appear balanced and proportionate.

    I’ll do some more research and see if he had anything to back it up with historically. On it’s own merit, it does make a lot of sense.

  18. Aaron
    That sounds like a plausible explanation. However, not one I’ve heard before. The origin of serifs I mentioned is the one commonly held, but there appears to be no “proof” or early extant records supporting this view.

    I’d love to hear what your professor has to say on the subject. It’s a very interesting theory. A similar method is used again and again in designing type—parts of letter forms are often times broadened to achieve that same effect; that is, to create the optical illusion of consistent width.

    I’m looking forward to hearing back from you. I’m off to print some large point-size San Serif fonts to test his theory (at a distance, of course).

  19. Frans

    I love typography too. Maybe I can help you with the translation of the Dutch word ‘schreef’. You could translate it to ‘wrote’, but that is in this case not the meaning of the word. ‘Schreef’ means also carve, line or border. So its easy to understand why this little horizontal line is in fact a mark for the end of the stroke. To go beyond the ‘schreef’ is still a well known Dutch expression meaning that one is doing what is not allowed.
    I hope this helps.

  20. Oooh mystery etymology!

    Etymonline.com says, “from earlier ceref, perhaps from Du. schreef “a line, a stroke,” from schrijven “to write,” from L. scribere.”

    But really I have no idea ;)

  21. Frans, that was interesting! Thanks for sharing that little bit of insight into the meanings of schreef!

  22. Frans
    That’s very interesting indeed. Thanks for your related emails too—fascinating.

    Thanks for referencing that definition. In my research for this article, I collected almost 100 definitions; it certainly appears that the “true” origins of the term “Serif” are obscure. And thanks for the http://www.etymonline.com link. I hadn’t come across that site before.

    Good to see you here. I really enjoyed reading your Sound Smart. Talk About Type post. I hope that everyone will subscribe to Creative Curio too, so that they can read the rest in the Typography Series of posts.

  23. It’s hard to say what I loved more - the article or the humorous headline along with the image. Let’s just say I really enjoyed it all :-)

    1489 readers and this blog is not even a month old. Congratulations, John! You’ve really hit the nail by launching a blog that’s dedicated to an important topic of Typography that many struggle with.

  24. Vivien
    That made my day, and what a coincidence because I’m half-way through reading your post, 8 Bits Of The Most Brilliant Advertising Campaigns.

    Well, I’m really pleased you enjoyed it. I’ve been surprised by the subscribers, number of visitors and so many emails. I’m really pleased that you could stop by and read.

  25. Whoops, just noticed that the li borders changed! Yeeeha!

  26. Manuel
    Just for you ;) Anything else, sir?

  27. Oh boy, you shouldn’t have asked ;-)

  28. Maira Rahme

    Well, I coudn’t figure out who’s behind this wonderful blog, maybe because I’ve only read this last post, but whoever it might be, I want you to know that you’ve now got a brazilian reader !!
    And that’s just because the way you write is so nice and so easy to understand that I couldn’t stop reading, even knowing the difference between a Serif and a Sheriff, and having learned all that stuff at Uni…

    Thanks a lot for the wonderful job, I’ll keep droping by!

  29. Maira
    Welcome to iLT, and thank you for the compliment.
    I am planning to have an “About the Author” page. I should really do that ASAP.

    When I looked at my web statistics, I was surprised to see so many visitors from Brazil, but you are my first Brazilian commentator (I think you deserve an I Love Typography T-shirt! Perhaps all those other visits from Brazil are from your friends :)

    I look forward to seeing you here again.

    “Eu amo o typography”. Is that correct?

    John Boardley

  30. John Feld

    At art school I was taught that the serif was where Roman stone carvers first placed their chisel when starting a cut. If you don’t make a wide first cut, apparently it is hard to then go on and make anarrow stroke.
    Whatever the start of the serif, I look forward to learning more.

  31. John
    That’s very interesting indeed. I guess I should ask my Stone Mason brother about that. Thanks for that insight, and I look forward to seeing you here again.

  32. Thank you for this nice introductory. Although I know the difference I like the summarizing picture of the various attributes. I’m interested in the next part.

  33. Have you heared about letritas?

    It version in english is:

    Here you can find much material about typography…
    The last article is “the black bible of tipography…”

    An ode to typographic blasphemy, jejejjeje

  34. Robert
    Thank you. I’ll be using the same picture in future posts to discuss the other elements of type. The image was inspired by one in Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type. I look forward to seeing you here for part two. Thanks for your visit and for taking the time to leave a comment.

    Juan Pablo
    I’ve heard about it now :) It’s a wonderful site. I’m reading the English version now. However, I couldn’t find the English version of La biblia negra del diseño tipográfico. I’d also love to read your post, El secreto del tipógrafo—looks very interesting; has that one been translated into English?
    Thanks for those great links. I think you are iLT’s first commentator from Chile. Gracias!

  35. John…
    I write the articles in spanish, and I could be double happy if my english can be as well that I need for write the articles. But, no…

    A friend, Francisca Reyes translated some articles. She is better than I in english, but she is very very busy at this time.

    Ok… typies is Stand by…
    Maybe you will have to learn a little of spanish

  36. I’m glad you went into the etymology of the word, even if it seems to be tad controversial (judging from the comments). I think most typography geeks also love words (and vice-versa), so etymology is important.

  37. Juan Pablo
    I’d love to have the time to study Spanish. However, I have on my plate with Japanese and French. Anyway, I’ll keep reading with the help of Google translate for now.

    Thanks. There’s lots more etymology to come. As the philospoher here, I’m eagerly awaiting your paper on The Philosophy of Type.

  38. Just wanted to say thank-you for building such a fabulous resource for the rest of us, typography has always been my weak point but now I have no excuse … thanks. I also love the site design.

  39. Juan Pablo
    Thanks. I’ve now found a Spanish translator, so keep you eyes peeled. Who Shot the Serif will be the first to be translated.

    Thank you. What a beautiful web site you have. I love some of the details—that footer, the resources section, and the RSS icon; oh, and those gorgeous backgrounds.

  40. Of course, I learned something. Who knew there were more than one kin of serif? Totally cool. It’s how I womp people’s butts playing Trivial Pursuit. This is almost as good as looking at my bookmarked food blog photos…Cool!

  41. Kellypea
    You made me laugh. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. See you again for the next part.

  42. lol, the spam word makes so sense, since I’m on a site about typigraphy, haha.

    Finally I got some spare time to read the articles, and yes, today I’ve learned something new about typography!

    thank you.

  43. Dumitru
    That’s great that you’ve learned something. You made my day. Thanks for stopping by.

  44. n3rdski

    I submitted this website to my typography teacher and he loved it. This site is an excellent study reference for our class.

  45. n3rdski
    That’s great to hear. Feel free to contact me. Perhaps I can feature your class here!

  46. Hi Johno,

    The title of this post made me laugh out loud and has Marley singing in my head as we speak. Nice work, neatly done.

    The Ming typeface entry on wikipedia might be useful for anyone intrigued by the reference to Chinese and Japanese serif character fonts.

  47. Jon Tan
    Thanks. I just checked you site and see that you are in Bristol. I lived there for a number of years before moving to Japan.

  48. I made the trip in reverse, Johno. SE Asia to Bristol about 7 years back at the suggestion of my girlfriend, now wife. I remember Japanese vending machines with great affection - they kept me fed. :) Great content, btw, and definitely worth recommending. You’ll probably see me in the comments if I have something useful to add. All the best.

  49. This is one of the sections my type teacher constantly went back to. It was amazing how many more students memorized the terms and the anatomy of type form the web site then when they read it in a book. :)

  50. Robert
    That’s really encouraging to hear, and has inspired me to write much more in the type terminology series. Thanks.

  51. I always thought serifs originated as an aid to the legibility of carved Roman letters. At mid-day the sun is high in the sky and the vertical stems of letters like I and H become virtually invisible because the carved groove can gives no shadow - except for the tiny v-shaped part of the carving at the extremities. With serifs the shadows at the ends help define the letter form. I wish I can refer you to exact references to this interesting theory.

  52. Vladimir

    That is indeed a fascinating theory, and one that I hadn’t come across before. If you can find anything supporting this interpretation, then please let me know.

    I’ve just been reading through your site; what a life you’ve led. I’m thoroughly impressed with the Perspector.

  53. I heard about this theory as well - but I don’t know a more reliable source as well. Would love to read more about this topic though! :-)

  54. Great article, thank you.

    Following on, have you any idea if there is a term for the measurement of the width of the stem/stroke?


  55. I think you should add “tittles” to the anatomy diagram.

  56. Nice article - more info than I probably wanted to know about serif - but it really gave me an appreciation for all that goes into a font - i liked the diagram that shows all the different parts of the letter - bowl, counter, etc.

  57. Great article, John. A good detail of the history of a font that so many of us just take for granted now.

  58. Thank you for this nice introductory..
    its very usefull for me…

  59. Michael

    If you really appreciate good typography—it makes text much more readable and pleasant to look at—you will (like most but not all of the posts here) also appreciate the beauty and readability of proper punctuation and capitalization.

    I’m constantly surprised at the sloppy job so many people do when they’re using the Internet, esp. writing “i” instead of “I.” It makes text vastly easier to read.

    By the way, I’m not sure what typeface this page uses, because I use my user stylesheet to set almost all elements in a serif face.

    Sans serif faces are for text you don’t want people to read, such as privacy statements and credit card terms.

  1. O que é a Serifa?—Aug 27, 2007
  2. Anatomía de la letra—Aug 30, 2007
  3. Jackson Fish Market—Sep 10, 2007
  4. Joe—Sep 13, 2007

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