I Love Typography

Decline and fall of the ligature

If the ligature could speak, it might well ask, why does nobody love me? Well, let’s put the record straight, but before we do — just in case you’re wondering, what the hell’s a ligature, let’s take a brief look.

ligature-doctor1.jpg

First, the typographic ligature should not be confused with the ligature of medicine; in medicine, a ligature is “a filament or thread used to tie something, like a blood vessel to prevent it from bleeding.” Interestingly. ligatures are also used in the treatment of Haemorrhoids. Confusing the two could result in serious injury or, at the very least mild discomfort. Who would have thought a health warning was necessary in an article on typography. OK, so now that that’s clear, let’s get a little more intimate with the ligature:

ligatures.gif

These are the most common ligatures, ff, fl, fi, ffi and ffl. A ligature is not simply two letters arbitrarily glued together. The two letters are crafted into a single letter (technically speaking a single glyph). Certain letter combinations are simply crying out for ligatures.

f plus i ligature in Adobe CaslonLet’s take, for example the combination of “f + i”: the letter “f” in both its lower-case and upper-case forms is top heavy; look at that overhang! In the example to your left, notice how the overhang of the “f” overlaps the “i” dot (tittle). Combining the “f” and “i” into a single glyph makes the “f” look that much more stable. It’s not going to fall over, because it’s using the “i” as a crutch. The overhang of the “f” (the terminal) also doubles as the dot of the “i”. You could say that ligatures are natural letter-friends.

fi-garamond-ligature.jpgWith the invention of Metal Movable Type in the 15th century, ligatures flourished and were a great time saver when setting type. For example, instead of having to set an “f” and an “i”, a single ligature block could be used instead. That may not seem like a great time saver, but when you’re setting an entire book 0f 40,000 words in movable type, then it could certainly make a difference.

For those of you interested in the origin (etymology) of the word “ligature”, it comes from the Latin ligatus, which basically means to tie or bind. And when you look at the above examples, you can see that ligatures are letters that have been bound or tied together (how happy they are about that, I have no idea).

So, the next time you’re reading, be sure to look out for ligatures.

The Decline of the Ligature

So whatever happened to the ligature? Well, to cut a long story short, the modern-era of printing, the typewriter and Desk Top Publishing (DTP) were all nails in the ligature’s coffin. Richard Wendorf, in a 2005 lecture The Secret Life of Type, even suggests that the death of the ligature was brought about by a desire to reduce the number of type pieces, and was also influenced by the popular publisher John Bell (1745-1831), who abandoned ligatures; and is also said to be responsible for the death of the long S.

Interesting type fact!
The most common ligature is the “&” (ampersand). This was originally a combination of the letters “e” and “t”, et, the Latin for “and”. However, the ampersand is generally no longer considered to be a ligature — but that’s how it started out.

The examples we looked at above are some of the most common ligatures; however, it’s possible to make a ligature from just about any letter combination. In fact there are entire ligature typefaces out there. Here’s an example of Mrs Eaves Just Ligatures, designed by Zuzana Licko of the Emigre Foundry:

just-ligatures-mrs-eaves.gif

Well, I’m sure we could write a whole book on ligatures alone; however, something tells me that it might not be a best-seller. In future articles we might take a closer look at the ligature, its history, and how and when they should be employed; and, even their use on the Web.

And, if you think that no-one loves the ligature, then take any book or magazine out of your bookcase, open it up, and look for “fi”! Now what do you think of ligatures?

If you missed earlier articles in the Type Terminology series, you can catch up here:
Who Shot the Serif
The Return of the Serif

Coming soon:
More TypeNuts and Typoholism: Facing your addiction.


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  1. Very interesting as always John.

    I’ll be interested to see the followup comments on web use of ligatures as thats something I haven’t really noticed before and it may be applicable to a project I’m currently working on.

  2. Ah, sweet, sweet ligatures! How I love thee!

    One culprit of the ligature’s demise, of course, is the modern day word processing program. I just did a search in Open Office’s help file for “ligature” and got back zero hits. I imagine one would get the similar results in Word, WordPerfect, etc. Of course, serious typesetting software (TeX, InDesign, etc.) handles ligatures automatically, if one is using an equally serious font with a good set of ligatures in it. But if people don’t know what they’re missing with Word, they can’t fight the battle to resuscitate ligatures back into the mainstream. That’s where you come in, of course!…

  3. Chris
    Good to see you here again. Thank you. Yes, the use of ligatures on the web is an interesting topic. Of course many web fonts do not include ligatures in their character set, but it is possible. I’m also working on some CSS “hacks” so that ligatures can be used on-line. That project sounds interesting.

    Alec
    Somehow, I knew you’d be a fan of ligatures. You mark me as a ligature kind of guy :) Thanks for mentioning TeX. Yes, it and others automatically substitute the correct ligatures for certain letter combinations. What I’d love to see is the rise of the ligature on-line. The revolution starts here!

  4. Very Interesting article. I love the site. A question that I have is what does the ligature actually do for usability. Is it to help the flow of reading, or is it just to make the text look better? Also is the ligature better suited for on paper reading or is it also good for reading on a screen such as the web?

  5. Ligatures have always been interesting to me. Never really used them outside of InDesign etc., but I look forward to the article on web use, and Johno’s CSS hack ligature project!

  6. Wow — ligatures on the web! How very interesting and cool that would be! One problem off the bat would be getting search engines to recognize, e.g., “fix” as “f - i - x” instead of “fi - x”, if you catch my drift. I guess if the sIFR guys (http://www.mikeindustries.com/sifr) could figure out how to make Flash “text” search-engine-friendly, perhaps something similar could be done for ligatures.

  7. very interesting! I’m too very curious about the use of ligatures on Web and John’s CSS hacks. They do look much easier on the eye.

    Those capital letters in the Mrs Eaves Just Ligatures type look like a set of logos. Pretty impressive.

  8. John,

    Food for thought, as always. I’ve used ligatures for what seems like forever, back to some books I did in PageMaker. I bet they help the eye flow forward for most readers. Myself, aside from that “fi” combination, I’ve never been a big fan of them; for no good reason. They just always catch my eye and actually slow my reading down. Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, however, I can’t wait to read what you have for us next.

  9. Very interesting post. I did, of course, previously know what ligatures were but didn’t know the history of them. I look forward to your CSS hack project that allows for ligatures on the web, but as Alec mentioned, it might be an issue with search engines. I have to say, I’m not really and fan of Mrs Eaves Just Ligatures. Some of the ligatures just seem awkward and others look like corporate logos.

    Also, although I’m still and student and new to the world of typography, I can tell that I’m in the right field because I find that picture of the metal “fi” ligature to be very appealing. I have the urge to pick it up and stamp, stamp, stamp all over the place.

  10. Ligature going to extinct? Well, thanks to the contributions of modern DTP or typewriter, in reducing type pieces and having each letters separately.

    But is there no hope? Maybe, or sure is, if there are no changes to any of the the as-stated reasons above.

    Well, recently I surfed around and found 1 new technology that might shed some lights to this issue, FONTSELF! (I am not related to the development of FONTSELF, so I am not doing any marketing gimmick of it. \(^_^)/) Personal opinion is that, FONTSELF can be utilised in various way to improve and enhance how typeface used to be, and that includes ligatures.

    Check on http://www.aiga.com for this. Johno should know what I am talking. I saw this blog of his from aiga.

  11. Brenson

    Very interesting. I checked several books and found the ligature. I never noticed them before!

  12. SallyYi

    I read all the posts. I’m really enjoying it. Can’t wait til the next.

  13. Ko

    I am not so sure if ligatures are disappearing. They were always notoriously difficult to use appropriately. Especially the less common pairs or triplets. Open Type fonts and their use in programs like InDesign, give you plenty of opportunity to have a look at them again. Zapfino has a large section of ligatures and many other extensive Open Type fonts do too.

    Talking about sections, is the little symbol beside the Interesting Type Fact! paragraph an ampersand? Is it rather not a section sign?

  14. @Alec: Maybe the web ligature isn’t a sIFR/CSS/interface issue. Perhaps it’s something that should become a w3c standard and search engines should recognize. Something for the wonks to think about. :)

  15. Zandt K.

    Hey very cool site, I found it via de.licio.us . I enjoy reading through the posts thanks for the good work.

  16. Paul: That would be cool! But I did a quick search at w3.org for “ligatures,” and most of the hits were about SVG. The ones that weren’t seemed to be from circa 1998. I guess we shouldn’t hold our breath!

  17. John, i’m sure you can guess how much I love ligatures from my order of DIN and Mrs. Eaves soup.

    Stephen Tiano - I think the reason you are stopping on the ligatures is because you actually know what to look for. Before I studied typography I had no idea they existed. I think it’s this way for most of the people out there with no typography experience. Or, maybe you are just a ligature hater, that’s cool too. Haha.

  18. An interesting read as expected. You really caught my attention with your posts since day one. I was just wondering as to the origins of ‘æ’. It strikes me as yet another well known ligature that is still used nowadays and has effectively become a ‘letter’ in itself.

    I was also wondering if you could perhaps enlighten the uninitiated on some of the programs you and Alec have discussed. As an amateur web designer myself, it’s always good to get some tips on some of the more experienced folks from the design business. Anyway, enough ranting. Keep up the awesome job and good luck on the css hacks; they sound promising!

  19. Dylan
    I know of no studies that have broached the topic of ligatures and readability. The ligature was used by ancient scribes to speed their writing; I don’t think the ligature is the product of a desire for improved readability; however, as Stephen Tiano writes below, perhaps they do perhaps inadvertently perform this function. Or, perhaps there’s something of Schrödinger’s cat in all this. Perhaps, when we become aware of them, they actually impede our reading. There’s definitely room for further investigation.
    I wonder if anyone noticed the “real” ligature in my article? ;)

    Ben
    Thanks. Keep your eyes peeled.

    Alec
    I don’t think the ligature—at least the common Unicode ones—prove to be a problem for search engines. Perhaps someone would like to experiment with this? For example, create a web page with a title like “fififi” (comprised of Unicode ligature), let the spiders crawl it, then later search for this term. Yes, don’t hold your breath waiting for W3C ;)

    Vivien
    I thought you might like Mrs Eaves Just Lig’s—very Zuzan Licko.

    Stephen
    Perhaps most people only notice the ligature outside of body text, and then only the rarer, more decorative ones like “st”.

    Jennifer
    You’re definitely a Type Nut. Happy stamping.

    Tendouji
    Yes that’s a very interesting project. I didn’t know that I was on Aiga.

    Brenson
    Yes, perhaps most of us never notice the ligature until we actually look for it.

    Sallyyi
    That’s great news. Thank you.

    Ko
    Yes, you’re right, it’s a section, but I use it to style all blockquotes in posts. I’m off to take a closer look at the Zapfino ligature set…

    Zandt
    Thanks for the encouragement. See you for the next article.

    Cody
    Mrs Eaves was for you, of course.

    Andre
    æ, Æ is an interesting one. Yes, in some languages it’s considered a letter. I don’t know much about the origin of this one, but I’ve just found this Wikipedia “ae” entry—very interesting, indeed.

    In Old English, the ligature was used to denote a sound intermediate between those of a and e (IPA [æ]), very much like the short a of cat in many dialects of modern English.

    When you mention programs are you referring to software for creating fonts or…?

  20. Hey John, you sneaky fox, do I really see the ligature in this sentence:
    “And, if you think that no-one loves the ligature, then take any book or magazine out of your bookcase, open it up, and look for “fi”! Now what do you think of ligatures?”

    I couldn’t believe my eyes, had to blow up the text several times to make sure your “fi” is a ligature indeed:

    fi

    (bohoo, how do I display an image in the comments?)

    So you got your CSS hacks working after all. I’m studying your CSS code now :-)

  21. Vivien
    It’s not a CSS hack ;) But you get a prize for noticing. I was going to talk about this in another article. Sorry about the image display. Fixed now, I think. So, if it’s not a CSS hack… ;)

    Alec
    Thanks, that’s great. Should be interesting…

  22. yes, I couldn’t find any hacks in your CSS, but I’m clueless as to how you got that working (font embedding?). Now I can’t wait for your next article, that will unveil the mystery of John’s ligature :-)

    P.S. Thanks for fixing image display in comments.

    P.P.S. Hey, what’s the prize? ;-)

  23. Vivien
    How about an iLT t-shirt with a ligature, or I Love Ligatures?

  24. T-shirt sounds fun, but how about a mouse pad with the words:
    InspirationBit Loves Typography
    :-)

  25. Since I don’t know the special secret image-posting technique, here’s a link to an image: I Love Ligatures

  26. What a coincidence! As you know, we traveled to Lucerne last weekend, and as soon as we got of the train i had to think about you:

    There was a huge poster hanging on the wall about the Lucerne Festival, and i thought “is this a ligature or is this some kind of logo art”?

    I never ever noticed this beautiful ligature before. I knew about fi and some others, but this one was new to me. Here’s a pic:

    ST ligature

    (talking about the ST, not RN)

  27. Vivien
    You’ve given me an idea. I’ll see what I can do.

    Alec
    The secret image-posting technique is…. Actually, I need to look at this. You’re not the only one to have had difficulties inserting images into posts. Apologies. Nice image. Did you create it?

    Manuel
    I’m concerned that when you see a ligature on vacation, that I’m the first thing to come into your head ;) Thanks for the image. Looks like the Carre Noir typeface; however, I don’t thing the character set for Carre Noir includes these two ligatures (In fact, I haven’t seen an upper-case ST ligature like that before), so I’m guessing they’ve been “created”. Anyway, I’ve emailed the Festival organisers and asked them.

  28. Adobe use to have a dedicated site to the benefits of using open type or something like that and then they showed the ligature part I got mesmerized and started searching the option in inDesign that auto-substitutes the letters with appropriate ligatures. :D

    This stuff looks exceptional on stuff for weddings or “formal” ceremonies.

  29. @Johno —- Yes, I created it. Seemed like it had to be done.

  30. Dumitru
    Good to see you here again. Nice to see some enthusiasm for the ligature. I love your Helvetica Poster:

    mervetica_by_static_13.png

    Alec
    Thank you. And just in case anyone misses Alec’s tribute to the ligature, here it is:
    ligatures.png

  31. Your Helvetica poster should be more square, just like the swiss, or helvetian flag :)

  32. Kerry

    Love the Blog. Keep ‘em coming.

    One place where I’ve encountered ligatures is in OCRing old books, which requires a lot of manual tweaking, for now.

  33. Eventho i follow this blog, and learn about those beautiful ligatures today, i used one without even noticing — Æ — for my category “Æsthetics & Design”.

    But it really was just a coincidence as i didn’t know it is a ligature. Living so close to denmark ( in fact, the island where i was born and still live used to belong to denmark just a couple centuries ago) i obviously were aware of Æ, as it is a common danish letter. And because i like it so much, i just used it.

    This is like going back to school, and for the first time it’s actually interesting! Æxcellent! :)

  34. Kerry
    Thanks for the compliment. Yes, that does sound like hard work! Is it something you’ve had to do?

    Manuel
    “ae” is an interesting one. It used to be more popular in English. I remember when everyone wrote encyclopÆdia. That you are learning and enjoying it really is an inspiration. Thanks.

  35. What a shame, Enceclopædia looks so good! I don’t know how to say or explain that in english, but i’ve always been a fan of good looking words. I even sometimes register domainnames, when i think the word looks great (the combination of it’s characters).

    Don’t know if there is a word for that “fetish”.

    By the way, we should really have a look into your comment engine/plugin settings. Posting pictures and href’ed pictures shouldn’t be that tricky for visitors. It starts to piss me off a lil’ to edit my comments 3 times in a row :D

    “Savvymark” is a word i just had to register. It looks even better when you don’t use the m in mark, but two upside down flipped v’s.

    Font: Ultramagnetic (with my custom-made “m”)

  36. Mark

    Great blog - thanks for your work.

    æ, Æ also interested me, and here are three snippets from dictionary.com that should interest at least some of you:

    ae - a digraph or ligature appearing in Latin and Latinized Greek words. In English words of Latin or Greek origin, ae is now usually represented by e, except generally in proper names (Caesar), in words belonging to Roman or Greek antiquities (aegis), and in modern words of scientific or technical use (aecium). Also, æ.

    And it has a name: the ash!

    æ - the ash, an early English ligature representing a vowel sound like that of a in modern bad. The long ǣ continued in use until about 1250, but was finally replaced by e. The short æ was given up by 1150, being replaced usually by a but sometimes by e.

    And then there’s this, which always intrigued me on old grave markers until I looked it up:

    ae - at the age of; aged. [Origin:

  37. @ JOHNO

    As for ‘programs’ i meant “[…] serious typesetting software (TeX, InDesign, etc.) handles ligatures automatically, if one is using an equally serious font with a good set of ligatures in it.” - ALEC.

    But I also meant any other software related to typography in general that people like me wouldn’t have heard of or used before.

  38. Hey Andre —- TeX is a cool program (or set of programs, actually) that also has a very cool story behind it. Maybe Johno will write about it someday! (The different theory behind fonts; the eschewing of WYSIWYG; the general nerd-factor;…) The major source of info about TeX is here: http://www.tug.org. If you run Windows, the de facto TeX implementation is here: http://www.miktex.org. If you run Linux, TeX is usually installed by default. If you really get into it, feel free to get in touch with me regarding basic readings, good TeX editors, True Type font installation in MiKTeX, etc. (I’m not nearly a TeX expert, but I did get pretty heavily into it for writing my Master’s thesis in philosophical logic. I still keep tabs on TeX, but don’t use it all that much anymore.)

    As for other typesetting software, that’d make a good article too. Hint, hint, Johno…

  39. Regarding ligatures and search engines:

    Bummer.

    This Google search (with fancy characters) finds the target; but this Google search (with just “fifi…”) doesn’t.

  40. Alec,
    that’s and interesting discovery! How did you find out that you can define the character set in gsearch?

  41. Totally by accident. I actually just selected the ligature text in Firefox, right-clicked, and chose “Search Google for…” All hail Firefox!

  42. Thanks everyone for your comments.Very interesting on Search Engines and ligatures — I’ll revisit this topic. Thanks for your input and help, Alec. Looks like I might be calling on you to guest write a piece on TeX.

    Mark, thanks for taking the time to post that info re æ. Greatly appreciated.

    Andre
    I guess that Alec has at least partially answered your question. I’ll be looking at software in future, including FontLab Pro, some cheaper alternatives, and lots, lots more.

    Manuel
    Apologies for the difficulties you’re experiencing. I though I’d fixed it — looks as though I’ll need to take a closer look at the whole commenting system, to make inserting links and images easy. Thanks for your patience — and your comments.

  43. Quite edu-taining. Another wonderful article in a wonderful blog.

    Keep up the great work.

  44. Rob
    Thank you very much. I’m simply drawing on experience, as you might say ;)

  45. Alec
    What you say about your Google search ligatures experiment is interesting

    This Google search (with fancy characters) finds the target; but this Google search (with just “fifi…”) doesn’t.

    I wonder why searching for the ligature-less “fifi” doesn’t find your page via the Google search; yet, when you selected the text in Firefox and searched via Google, it hit the mark. Must be an encoding thing. I guess the search Google via a piece of selected text, uses the underlying Unicode characters?

    It would be interesting to find out what Google has to say on this matter. Thanks for the experiment, Alec. I’ve sent a message to Google about this, but won’t hold my breath waiting for them to reply.

  46. Pio

    Hi,

    I know it’s been almost three months since the last comment, and I’m sorry if I’m “bumping” anything by posting this, but I just couldn’t resist :)

    First of all, about the æ. Where I come from (Norway), the æ is considered a letter on the same plane as any other (we have 29 letters in our alphabet), and not a ligature, it even has it’s own key on our keyboards. Just imagine how happy it must be! However, it’s origin is as a ligature, and it should still be considered as such in e.g. latin words such as encyclopædia.

    Now, about ligatures in computer programs. For those of you lucky enough to own a Mac, there are ligatures all over the place! Apple is widely known for it’s attention to aesthetics, and their typography clearly reflects this. For instance, I just noticed that even the address bar in Safari (3) auto-inserts ligatures(!), and Pages contains tons of options for using ligatures in OpenType fonts.

    Screenshot of address bar in Safari with f-i, f-l, f-f-i and f-f-l ligatures:

    Apple’s system font is Lucida Grande which, coincidentally, is one of the few sans-serif fonts with ligatures.

    Typography options in Pages for Garamond Premier Pro (click for full view):

    Hmm.. I see the images aren’t showing, and in case they decide not to show up at all, here are the links:
    http://fagga.net/safariligature.png

    http://fagga.net/pagestypography.png

  47. i love this blog. :)
    thanks for sharing.. ;)

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