I Love Typography

eXtreme Type Terminology

Part 1: The Detection of Types—by Paul Dean

The detection of types is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime.—The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902.

Our modern English alphabet is a child of the Latin alphabet or Roman alphabet, which evolved from a western version of the Greek alphabet approximately 2,700 years ago. The profession of typography was essentially born in Germany with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of a movable metal type printing press in the early 1450s. The individual pieces of metal type that Gutenberg worked with were not letters, but letterforms.

Photo courtesy of typographyphotography.com

Let me explain. There is a subtle but important difference in meaning between a grapheme, character or letter and a glyph, letterform or sort. A letter, character or grapheme refers to a fundamental conceptual mark that represents a spoken sound. (A phoneme refers directly to the sound.) A sort, letterform or glyph refers to a particular manifestation of a letter or character, one created by a type designer.

A ligature is a single sort in which two or more letters are joined, usually to improve the space between them. There are a few ligatures that are still seen today, such as the connected fi, fl, the triple play ffl, and sometimes even the stylish ct ligature. A typographic diphthong is a glyph of two vowels spliced together, and it symbolizes a phonemic diphthong, two linked vowel sounds. Ligatures and diphthongs are also known as tied characters, tied letters, and sometimes quaints.

ligature examples set in Newzald

The first typefaces were based on the manuscript handwriting of the time, and were intended to be indistinguishable from it. Typefounders, designers and producers of metal type, have subsequently reached to the Roman lettering of antiquity for inspiration, and now, in an era of digital typography, inspiration and references come from sources that were unimaginable in the past.

blaktur a new blackletter

Since the invention of printing, typefaces have been classified historically. The earliest type is now known as black letter, blackletter, block, fraktur, gothic or old English. The humanist, or Venetian typefaces followed, a style that more closely resembled handwriting. Old style, old face, or garalde type. Garalde, a term rarely used now, is a mash-up of the names Garamond and Aldus, referring to the notable typefounders Claude Garamond and Aldus Manutius. Old style typefaces are distinguishable from humanist types by the horizontal rather than oblique or sloping crossbar of the lowercase e.


Italic type is an old style variation developed in Venice around the year 1500 at Aldus Manutius’ foundry. It was cut by Francesco Griffo, and based on handwriting of the time. The dramatically condensed characters decreased the space taken up by the text, and with italic type Manutius produced the first pocket-sized books set in this new italic. The first cursive type also arrived around this time. Like italic, cursive resembles handwriting, but cursive characters are, whenever possible, connected.

Transitional type refers to typefaces such Baskerville, by English printer John Baskerville, and Philippe Grandjean’s Romain du Roi, which was created for the exclusive use of presses allied with the French Crown and then declared the only legal typeface. Transitional typefaces have more vertical stress than old style type, they stand taller, with slighter more contrast between the thick and thin strokes, and feature, not insignificantly, horizontal serifs. Transitional type, named in hindsight, was part of an evolution towards the typefaces of the late 1700s and early 1800s.

New face, modern face, or modern typefaces seemed to appear quite suddenly. Modern type has a very nearly vertical and horizontal structure and much greater contrast between thicks and thins than had ever been seen before. Bodoni and Didot, two representative examples, were created by and named for competing family type foundries. Both of these typefaces are also classified as Didones.


Slab serif and sans serif typefaces appeared in the early 1800s, the 18-teens to be precise. Both are characterized by a fairly even line weight, even into the serifs of the appropriately named slab serifs. The earliest slab serifs were heavy display faces, but these soon evolved into a broad range of weights and styles. Interestingly, sans serifs, easily distinguished now by their lack of serifs, at first resembled nothing so much as a slab serif.

Archer, a very fine example of a slab serif

There are other terms that describe not the history but the physical structure of a typeface. The width of a typeface can be described as broad, extended, expanded, normal, condensed, extra-condensed and slim. The posture of a typeface refers to its relationship to an imaginary vertical line. The vertically oriented letters are generally known as roman. Carefully crafted letters that resemble handwriting and lean to the right are generally called italic. Characters that have been mechanically or digitally redrawn to lean to the right—even sometimes to the left—are known as oblique characters.

Case alphabets, such as English, are those alphabet systems in which the letters have two distinct forms. The terms uppercase and lowercase come directly from the slim but heavy horizontal cases of metal type that were indispensable to printers for over 500 years, from 1454 to the 1950s and ’60s. When arranged for the process of handsetting type, the uppercase letters, also known as capitals, majuscules or versals were stored in the upper type case, above and resting at a slightly steeper angle than a second case of letters, the lowercase letters, also known as small letters, or minuscules. The term titlecase refers to the convention, often used in titles and headlines, of an uppercase initial letter followed by lowercase letters in each word.


Case mapping is the designation of uppercase, lowercase or titlecase in the editorial or typographic instructions. When specifying uppercase or lowercase type, designers and printers often use the abbreviations Uc for uppercase and lc for lowercase. When used in combination, the use of upper- and lowercase type is abbreviated U&lc or U/lc, and I have heard second hand of a C&lc, an acronym for, presumably, caps and lowercase.

The expression “mind your p’s and q’s” probably comes to us from the tedious and exacting job of sorting metal letters after printing a page and returning them to the type cases. The raised letter on a block of metal type represents a letter that prints in the opposite direction, so a metal p resembles a printed q and vice versa. P’s and q’s were particularly tricky.

[Paul Dean teaches graphic design at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His hobby is his freeform blog: www.djmisc.com. This is the first in a multi-part, quick-fire type terminology tour de force. The entire series will be available as a lovely printable PDF with additional illustrations, for reference.]

Read Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


  1. An excellent barrage of wonderful type terminology and other information. Thanks Paul (and John of course)!

    Now excuse me while I digest all of this…

  2. I remember back in junior high school taking a typesetting class, and the awful frustration of mixing up my p’s and q’s with great regularity. I wonder why the phrase never became “Mind your d’s and b’s!” — I mixed those up just as regularly.

  3. Vrinda

    Love the extreme type terminology! Its so helpful, since I’m just starting to learn about all of this. I was just wondering what the difference between oblique and Italic was the other day, and here it is, so well explained.
    Thanks Paul and John! :)

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I always enjoy reading about the history of type. The more I understand the history, the more specific fonts begin to speak to me.

    In fact, last weekend I read Designing with Type to refresh my memory about the basics of type design and its history. It inspired me to do some research on the formation of the western alphabet. I’m really fascinated by it at the moment and a blog entry is soon to follow.

  5. nourmalaeb
    Pleased you enjoyed it. I think this series will be a gret reference piece, especially if its accompanied by an index.

    Sounds like a great Junior High School.

    There’s also a great article. Fake vs. True Italics on Mark Simonson’s site. In fact there are lots of little gems on his site.

    Looking forward to that post. I enjoyed your Expressive Words project.

  6. Great article Paul. The Sherlock Homes quote was a nice touch.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

    The Fake vs. True Italics link seems to be pointing to this very article, I’m assuming that was not intended, heh.

  7. Bravo Paul,
    all the basics in a short and clear piece, nice tour de force.

    I was amazed by that ASSIGN illustration, and am still wondering what type it can be. Maybe Assign is its own name? I love the way the G ends…

  8. Hamish
    Thanks, and well spotted. Fixed now.

    The type used in the Assign illustration is Jean François Porchez’s Ambroise. It was also used to set this masthead .

  9. The difference between letters and glyphs is an important one, and gets totally muddied by efforts like Unicode. Should a codepoint (another term of art) be assigned to unique glyphs? They have in some cases (fl, ff, ffi), but not in others. Wikipedia has some examples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ligature_(typography)

    On the flip side of the coin, there can be glyphs which look identical, but are distinct letters:
    Latin capital A: http://www.decodeunicode.org/en/u+0041
    Greek capital Alpha: http://www.decodeunicode.org/en/u+0391
    Cyrillic capital A: http://www.decodeunicode.org/en/u+0410
    Cherokee letter Go: http://www.decodeunicode.org/en/u+13aa

  10. Nice article, Paul.

    One comment — I found this statement misleading: “… Philippe Grandjean’s Romain du Roi, which was created for the exclusive use of presses allied with the French Crown and then declared the only legal typeface.”

    This seems to imply that all printers in France at that time were required to use only the RdR types.

    In fact, the RdR types were only to be used by the royal printer: the Imprimerie Royale. It was illegal for any other French printer to use the RdR types.

  11. Paul Kearney

    ‘There are a few ligatures that are still seen today, such as the connected fi, fl, the triple play ffl, and sometimes even the stylish ct ligature.’

    Is it possible to use these characters (fi, fl) in the article, or maybe they’re not supported?

  12. Hello, Typographers!

    I loved this article. The fonts for demonstrating each type family were particularly well-chosen, as well! On that note, I’m a bit curious: Why not give credit where it’s due and name the faces used?

    Finally, I’d always heard that “Mind your p’s and q’s” referred to Pints and Quarts, in a bar. However, this page on phrases.org.uk has A LOT more information on the phrase.


  13. About classification of types, you can also read (in french) the book of Jean-Pierre Lacroux, PDF and HTML at http://www.orthotypographie.fr/ . See the notes about Classification and Italique.

    Beg your pardon for my bad english ;-).

  14. Petra Lynn Hofmann

    I get out of sorts spending too much time minding the p’s and q’s.


  15. Ervin Esen

    Thank you Paul, for writing this fascinating article, and thank you John for creating such a perfect blog at the first place. It’s been a real pleasure to read the articles of iLT, and it will always be, as it seems :))

  16. Lovely article, thanks a lot :)

  17. There’s nothing like some good old fashion typography history :)

  18. Christy Z

    Great article Paul. I will be looking forward to the rest of the series.

  19. Ollie Jones

    Years ago, when I learned, in school in England, to set text with lead type from cases, the work of replacing the sorts into the case was called “distributing” or “dissing” for short. And, it was indeed tedious; the schoolmaster used it as an exercise for the new kids in the print shop. I used to confuse “c” / “e” and “b” / “q” a lot, until I learned to read the text for its meaning as I was dissing it.

    Lino was a big advance — you could just melt the #$@#$#$ galleys!

    Thanks for an interesting article!

  20. Thank you everyone for your encouraging comments. Parts two through five are on their way!

  21. Rebe Nolan

    Hey! What a great site! Here I am recovering from flu and look what I found! I just want to know more … and more. I’ll be visiting this site regularly. Meanwhile, how can I get some of these wonderful fonts?

  22. Ned
    Many thanks for those additional links.

    You’re right. The romain du roi types were for the exclusive use of the Imprimerie Royale.

    Yes, it’s possible to use some ligatures within the article—those that have a unicode space/value—as you’ve done in your comment.

    Good idea. Perhaps it’s worth having credits at the end of each article in future. Credits:
    fiction: Newzald
    blackletter: Blaktur
    grande assign: Ambroise
    slab serif: Archer

    And thanks for that link!

    Votre anglais est parfait. Merci!

    When you get to my age, you no longer care ;)

    …and thank you for contributing. Lots more come.

    Welcome to iLT. Pleased you enjoyed Paul’s article. Hope to see you again for the next four parts.

    That reminds me, I have to finish writing part four of the Type Terms/Type History series.

    Me too. I’ve had the pleasure of reading the entire series. I think you’ll enjoy the other four parts.

    Sounds like a great education. You still set type?

    Better than vitamin C :)

  23. Great article, thanks a lot :)

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