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eXtreme Type Terminology

Part 1: The Detection of Types—by Paul Dean

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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 ‘title case’ 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 title-case 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.]

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