eXtreme Type Terminology

“The very air of the room seemed charmingly alive with little floating dollar signs and fat little ciphers, commas, more ciphers, all winging around happily, waiting for a mere scratch of the pen to call them into action.”
—Dawn Powell, Angels on Toast, 1938.

The Roman alphabet came equipped with its own numbering system, and Roman numerals still have their uses. They are commonly seen, for instance, on clock faces, in movie credits, and on the pages of a book which precede the introduction and the text itself. The letters M D C L X V and I, used in combination and sometimes with a bar over the letter, Roman numerals can signify all whole or natural numbers. Well, everything but zero (0). The zero was invented in India, and it has maintained the same form, generally a circle but sometimes just a dot, ever since.

Roman numerals

The word cipher, derived from the same root zephyr and zero, usually suggests a zero but it can refer to other digits too. The European digits that have generally come to replace Roman numerals are sometimes referred to, inaccurately, as Arabic numerals. They might more properly be called Indian numerals, because they evolved from characters that, like the zero, originally came from India. The term Arabic numerals can lead to confusion with Arabic digits, the numbering system currently in use in Arabic culture. Arabic numerals and Arabic digits have similar ancestors, share some formal characteristics, and consist of ten characters, but are completely different symbol sets.

Typographically speaking, there are several ways to classify European digits. Tabular figures share a common figure width and are used for tabular data because they form orderly rows and columns. Proportional figures have varying widths and are used for everything that doesn’t require tabular figures.

Old Style or text figures are designed to work in harmony with the ascenders and descenders of a typeface; they sometimes fall below the baseline, and sometimes rise above the x-height. Lining figures are usually drawn to match the base and the height of, and thus align with, capital letters, but some type designers create a second set that is slightly shorter than the capitals and looks better in running text.

old style figures and lining or regular figures

A specialized font might also include numerator and denominator figures. Smaller numbers that rest below or just higher than the regular characters are known  inferior or subscript (the lower numbers) and superior or superscript (the higher ones). 

The forward slash (/), which we met earlier, is used to create horizontally bound split fractions. Stacked fractions, also known as horizontal bar fractions or vertical fractions, consist of numbers stacked above and below a figure dash. A nut fraction is a stacked fraction that is specifically designed to fit an en space. A built fraction is one that is painstakingly assembled element by element, whereas a piece fraction is one that comes as part of a font. 

Speaking of math, the basic typographic units of measurement are the point and the pica. There are 12 points in a pica, and a pica is equivalent to 1/6 inch, thus making a typographic point 4.233 mm or 0.166 inch. Type is typically measured in points, and type size is referred to as point size. (Point size is determined by measuring from the top of the highest ascender to the bottom of the lowest descender, and therefore cannot be accurately measured from a single character.)

Dashes, Rules and Dot Leaders

The smallest typographic line is the hyphen, the short dash used to link hyphenated words and for wordbreaks at the end of a line. Ems and ens return to help describe the other line dashes: the en dash, the width of an en space, and the em dash, a popular line the width of an em space.

typographical dashes

As Alexander & Nicholas Humez, describe it in the book ABC Et Cetera, “The em dash is used to indicate abrupt transitions—What?—and quasi-parenthetical expressions—such as this one.”  The two-em dash and the three-em dash are precisely as long as their names imply. 

The two remaining character-size lines are the underscore or understrike (_), and the increasingly popular pipe, also known as a vertical or a vertical bar (|). Incidentally, the grids created using vertical bars and understrikes, open at the top, for the filling-in, letter by letter, of information are known as combs.

Larger typographic lines are referred to as rules, which is perhaps not surprising in a field as traditional as typography. A hairline rule is a particular fine line; other rules are defined by width as measured in points. At some undefined point a wide rule becomes a bar. Bar width is also measured in points. Cutoff rules are used to distinguish the width of columns of type, and a leader of dashes sometimes carries the eye across a column of information, linking, for instance, a chapter title to a page number. A dot leader is a row of periods or midpoints set for the same purpose. 

The ruled box in the upper right hand corner of an envelope or postcard that contains permit information instead of a stamp is known as the indicia. The left and right hand pages of an open book or magazine spread are known as the verso (the page on the left) and the recto (the page on the right).

verso recto

The page numbering is known as the pagination. A page number is also known as the folio. Folio refers to the printed number, not the page itself, and so a page without a page number is known as a blind folio


There were no extraneous specks, lines or squiggles to distract from the beauty of the original Roman majuscules. There were not even any spaces between the words, and this helped give Roman lettering, particularly when inscribed in stone, a harmonious texture. For sheer aesthetic appeal, legibility be damned, a comparison of wordswithoutspacing and space between the words reveals the beauty of the former and can leave the latter looking like gap teeth.

The first punctuation mark was a dot or small triangle situated midway between the top and bottom of the letters, which was used, instead of spacing, to indicate a named or title. The interpunct, centered dot, middle dot or midpoint has been hailed by Wikipedia, as “perhaps the first consistent visual representation of word boundaries in written language.” So the interpunct may be the mother of all punctuation marks, and not just the obviously similar, but slightly bolder and much lower full point, full stop, or period (.).

Today we would be lost, or at least often confused, if we didn’t clarify our prose with this handy little dot. The period once had an even loftier role in world affairs: most nineteenth-century newspapers had a period at the end of their mastheads. The New York Times continued with the period until 1966, half a century after most other papers had dropped the dot. Perhaps the editors felt that the period suggested stability and tradition, and was therefore worth the $84 a year in ink that type designer Edward Rondthaler once jokingly estimated that it required.

There is more to punctuation than just periods, of course. As every type designer soon realizes, a complete font set will also need an apostrophe (’), colon (:), semicolon (;), comma (,), hyphen (-), an en-dash (–), an em-dash (—), ellipsis or suspension points (…), and an exclamation mark, sometimes known as an exclamation point, screamer or bang (!). 

In Britain the exclamation mark is sometimes referred to as a dog’s prick, and that, further, the combination of a colon and a dash (:—), out of fashion now but long used to represent a restful pause, is known as a dog’s bollocks. This is because the combination is, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary, “regarded as forming the shape resembling the male sexual organs.” The “dog’s bollocks (also dog’s ballocks)” also serves, incidentally, as British slang for the best of anything; as in the “bee’s knees.” 

The question mark, query or squiggle (?) is of course crucial mark, and there are two types of quotation marks: smart quotes, also known as curly quotes or, in Britain, inverted commas (“”), and prime marks, a catch-all which includes the foot mark (′), the inch mark (″) and hatch marks or dumb quotes (″″). Both smart quotes and dumb quotes can be referred to as single quotes (‘’) or double quotes (“”). Standard punctuation marks also include a set of braces or brackets ([]) and its variations: curly brackets ({}), chevrons (<>), guillemets, otherwise known as angle brackets or angle quotes («»), and, of course, parentheses, which is both singular and plural for the ubiquitous curls (()), which can be distinguished individually as open parentheses (() and close parentheses ()). (Parenthetically, parenthesis, spelled with an i, refers to the inserted material, while parentheses, with three e’s, refers to the typographic glyphs.) And these days every typeface needs a slash or forward slash, also known as a slant, stroke, diagonal, whack, separatrix, or virgule (/). A pair of these, leaning as they do on every page of the Internet, are known as a double virgule (//). 

The ampersand (&) is a stylized ligature of e and t, and represents the Latin word et or ‘and.’ Other commonly called for but unusual marks are the asterisk or splat (*), the commercial at sign, more commonly known as the at (@), the backslash (\), bullet (•), caret (^), currency marks (such as ¢, $, €, £, and ¥), a dagger or obelisk (†), double dagger (‡), degree mark (°), an inverted exclamation point (¡) and inverted question mark (¿) for Spanish exclamations and interrogations, a lozenge (◊), a percent sign (%), a paragraph mark, paragraph sign, pilcrow or alinea, from the Latin a linea, meaning “of the line,” (¶), a section sign (§) and what must surely be the most-named typographic mark of all time, an octothorpe (named by Bell Labs’ engineer Don MacPherson by combining octo-, meaning eight, with the name of the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion Jim Thorpe), with the variations octothorp or octothorn, also known as the crosshatch, double hashmark, pound sign, number sign or, in computerese, a crunch (#).

Accent marks, which rest over and under the letters of foreign expressions, are also known as diacritical marks or diacritics. Some common diacritics are the acute or aigu (é),  the cedille (ç), the caret, circumflex or circonflexe (ê), the grave (à), the tilde or swung dash (ñ), and the umlaut, a feature in many German words (ü), is identical to the diaeresis or trema (ö) that is rare and not mandatory in English (don’t be naïve), but is a regular feature of Dutch, French and Spanish.

diacritical marks \

A floating or non-spacing diacritic has, in the computer’s mind, zero width, and so one diacritic can be easily combined with any of a variety of letters.

Dingbats are typographic ornaments or simple illustrations, the most famous set of which, Zapf Dingbats, was designed by Hermann Zapf. They are sometimes also known as ornaments, or as fleurons if the illustrations are of a horticultural nature. A set of pi characters, also known as a pi font, consists of nothing but unusual type forms, generally known as all sorts, special sorts, or peculiars.

Slang punctuation refers to typographic signs that are created by the user of a typeface, rather than the type designer, by combining pre-existing characters of the font. Two examples are a combination of question marks and exclamation marks (!?) to express exasperation, or augmentation by repetition (!!!) for emphasis. A third is a form of expression that has developed as a consequence of the surge of email and text messaging: emoticons, such as the apparently timeless smiley face. =) 

In Emoticons During Wartime, a recent article in The New Yorker (December 10, 2007), Tom McNichol documents the usefulness of emoticons in communicating by visual innuendo. Emoticons can mean whatever the writer and reader want them to mean, until, of course the meaning is explicitly defined for all by The New Yorker. Two striking examples are:

“=|:-)=   This e-mail is being monitored by Uncle Sam for your protection,” and “:-x   I’d rather not say in an e-mail that’s being monitored for my protection.”

“When the world blows up and the final edition has gone to press the proofreaders will quietly gather up all commas, semicolons, hyphens, asterisks, brackets, parenthesis, periods, exclamation marks, etc. and put them in a little box over the editorial chair.”
—Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1961.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5

[Font credits: Numerals—Le Monde Livre PTF; Dashes: Archer; Diacritical Marks: Newzald]


  1. Thanks for the lesson! I knew there was a good reason for adding ILT to my feeds list.

  2. Nebomax
    Thank you. Paul has done a great job with this series. See you again.

  3. Dylan

    I’m a bit confused by the maths in:

    “There are 12 points in a pica, and a pica is equivalent to 1/6 inch, thus making a typographic point 4.233 mm or 0.166 inch.”

    To me, that appears to be saying that a point is 0.166 inches, but that can’t be right! I’d say that your figures were for the size of a pica, not a point?

    Otherwise, 12pt text would be just under 6cm in size ;)

  4. TypoJunkie

    Nice long article! I loved it. And a great header too. I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Hoefler at a lecture and he mentioned that letters, derived from the Latin/Roman alphabet, face right, while numbers face left, reflecting their Asian roots. Just thought I’d share!

    Anyways, will have to re-read the article to take it all in. Thanks to John and Paul!

    Loved the phrase:”At some undefined point a wide rule becomes a bar.” I guess typographers (myself included) not as square as I thought.

  5. David Reimer

    I’m just an amateur who long ago succumbed to the lure of type. Perhaps readers of this blog will already know of Victor Gaultney’s University of Reading dissertation on diacritics and Latin script text faces which can be downloaded from his research page. I found it very interesting, and it relates to some of the material discussed here.

    Meanwhile, thanks for this delightful blog!

  6. It’s been a great series, and this article was no exception. One nitpicky issue: the New York Times’ “masthead” is actually called its nameplate; the masthead is the list of editors inside the paper. Other names for the name of the paper at the top of page 1 are the logo and flag.

  7. Bert Vanderveen

    Small mistake I found: the foot mark is a single straight line (half of the inch mark), not an inverted comma.


  8. Wow — amazing whirlwind of information. I feel like I need a cigarette or something…

  9. Martijn

    a combination of question marks and exclamation marks (!?) to express exasperation

    Goes into the Slang punctuation section. But how about the interrobang? That one is exactly what described, however, designed by a type designer.

    Great article I, again, learned some new terms here at iLT!

  10. T Stein

    It wasn’t until the era of computer typesetting, and then word processing, that the pica was exactly 1/6 of an inch, which was adopted for convenience. A point is 1/72.27 in, not 1/72. I suspect that metal type is still cast on the old units.

  11. Fantastic article!

    My favorite part was when you put the parentheses in parentheses.

  12. This is another one of those enlightening posts akin to the Small Caps lesson Alec gave us. I particularly enjoyed learning about the old style vs. lining numerals.

    By the way, if anyone is interested, I wrote an article on using points and picas a while ago.

    Hehe, after I read the bit about the period, I started really seeing it—almost like seeing a letter—throughout the rest of the article :)

    I totally didn’t know that bit about the ampersand! A combo of e and t… I’m going to look at some of those in my font collection!

    What happened to the wonderful interrobang? I sure wish they had left that in digital font sets. Do you know of any fonts that include it?

  13. Bert Vanderveen

    Second try to post this:

    I found a mistake re the “foot mark”. That’s been represented by an inverted comma, instead of the “half” of the “inch mark” it should be. (In code: &prime — mind the lowercase p… cap would result in inch mark).

  14. DN

    Thanks for the reference to the dog’s bollocks. It’s still common in Nepali, replacing the lone colon. I always assumed that it was used to avoid the confusion between the colon and the visarga (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visarga)—in the standard fonts, the visarga looks like a colon but with two diamonds instead of dots—but I’m delighted to be informed that it has a history in the West too and didn’t appear ex nihilo.

  15. Martijn


    I believe the fonts Microsoft brought us with the new office and OS contain the interrobang. I’m sure you will be able to find more fonts containing it. Palatino Linotype might also have it, this on shows up in a different style to me at the interrobangs Wikipedia article. Other than that, ofcourse Code2000 includes it.

    It sure is a wonderful glyph.

  16. N Mutans

    I was all set to come make, “What about the interrobang?!” noises, but I am pleased to see that I have been beaten to the punch.

    Great post, thank you!

  17. sallyyi

    Thanks Paul and Johno!! I hope it’s 10 more parts. I really enjoy.

  18. I think I have to read this a couple of times.. Im getting old I guess.

    About numbers, for those who don’t know this documentary by the BBC, I suggest seeing it, its well worth it The story of 1

  19. Lauren@

    Just tried playing with unicode, but something in WP filters it out :-/

  20. Rich

    Tremendous article!

    However, I just have to put forth that, unlike the article suggests, the word ‘parenthesis’ - in addition to being able to refer to the material inserted between the glyphs of the same nomenclature - can refer correctly to a single member of the pair ‘parentheses’ (in the same way that ‘thesis’ refers to one of multiple ‘theses’; ‘oasis’, one of ‘oases’; and ‘crisis’, one of ‘crises’, all as the etymology asserts). Both Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster corroborate this definition of the word.

    Apologies, if I seem overly nit-picky. I am loving this series. =)

  21. @Martijn and Esben
    Thanks!! I’ll have to look into those fonts (Esben, I saw your comment on Georgia via the subscribe to comments email, but looks like you deleted it here). I’ve never actually searched for it via glyphs in Illustrator or InDesign. Now I have to! Fun!

  22. Jaap

    Nice overview, but here’s a minor correction: trema and umlaut, though hard to distinguish visually, are not entirely the same thing. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umlaut_%28diacritic%29

  23. Thank you so much for all the writing. Reading this is a sheer joy. I love typography, I do.

  24. I wish I could read this in french.

  25. Henk

    Thanks for another very interesting read.

    One very small nitpickety point: most fonts will probably have no separate glyphs for diaeresis and umlauts, but latin modern (used by LaTeX) does. The diaeresis dots appear higher and with wider spacing between them, the umlaut dots are closer together and lower above the letter, see e.g. in this big pdf file p. 107.

    Edit to add: Sorry Jaap, I commented before reading your comment.

  26. Here again to offer some additional insights.

    Regarding T Stein’s comment about the different measures of a typographical point: Actually, as originally proposed by Fournier in his 1764 Manuel Typographique, the definition of a typographical point is 1/72 of an inch:

    “At the head of the Table is a fixed scale, which I have divided into two inches, the inches into twelfths, and the twelfths into six of these typographical points, the whole consisting of 144 points.” [note: 144 points over 2 inches. This quote is from Harry Carter’s 1930 translation.]

    The problem, of course, is that Fournier’s “inch” had no precise, lawful measurement, but was itself somewhat arbitrary.

    The “American Point” system, which used the figure T Stein cites, was established in 1886 by the United States Type Founders’ Association. It was derived from an attempt to reconcile the pica with the metric system by equating 83 picas with 35 centimeters. This yields the 0.0138348 inch point that was used for metal type in the 20th century. With the advent of DTP, the current 1/72 (0.0138888) inch point which we use today was implemented.

    On another note, the term “inverted comma” for an opening quotation mark comes from the fact that early in the adoption of the quotation mark (as we know it today), before it was clearly established as a common form of punctuation, a comma was actually turned 180 degrees and placed in the stick upside down to serve as an opening quote mark. The closing quotation mark was an apostrophe, which was already an established form (being basically a raised comma).

  27. They do amaze me, these typographic creation people. iIt requires such patience and precision, and yet is such a creative artform.

    Super post.

  28. In a way, I quite like the articles published here. They are not overly theoretical and they are approachable: “bringing typography to the masses”. However, greater precision would make them better and one could use them as a reference.

    1. Just a little remark to the first two paragraphs. It is not clear what do you mean by “the original Roman majuscules”, because the first were not so beautiful and the imperial (generally considered beautiful) were already used with the interpunct in the inscriptions: http://www.flickr.com/photos/typoblog/461825402/

    2. Considering diacritics a subset of punctuation is in my opinion a serious mistake. To my understanding (supported by The Oxford Dictionary) the punctuation “… is used in writing to separate senteces and their elements and to clarify meaning.” (sentence element is a word in this respect). On the other hand, a diacritic “indicates a difference in pronunciation from the same letter when unmarked or differently marked”, i.e. it changes the meaning (sometimes radically) of the word. Punctuation marks are inter-word marks, whereas diacritics are intra-word marks. They have different roles in the communication.

    This might seem overly nitpicky to the English reader, but it is a crutial knowledge for those who use diacritics on a daily basis. Also this, quite common, misconception of “diacritics are a punctuation” leads to a serious problems in typefaces where even great typedesigners produce very poor diacritics, because they do not realize that the diacritics are actually parts of the letters. Or they consider the diacritical accents identical to the similarly-shaped/named punctuation (comma accent vs. comma, dot vs. period, macron vs. dash, vertical caron on letters such as d,l,t as an apostrophe, slashed O [Ø] vs. slash + O) thus producing poorly legible texts (in certain languages).

    There is definitely more to say about diacritics. Victor Gaultney’s text (mentioned above) and Filip Blažek’s Diacritics project (http://diacritics.typo.cz) are good strating points.

    3. Even though, I quite like Kris Sowersby’s typefaces. The word “háček” (meaning caron in Czech) set in Newzald here is not the best example of properly treated diacritics. The caron in particular does not fit the stylistic principles of the letters. My apologies to the author for this comment on his typeface.

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