Those little things on the ends of letters

By Kaleb Lyonnais

Most people do not think much about the fonts they use. Many people use whichever font their teacher or boss requires, and other people use whichever font is the default. If someone ever stops to look through the fonts, a question they have is usually: what are those little things on the ends of some of these letters?

Those things on the ends of letters are called serifs. They usually are short lines at approximately 90° angles to the main body of the letter, but there are many variations.

If you just looked at the letters on your screen, and you did not find any serifs, that is because Denobis uses a sans serif font (sans is French for without). If you do see any, then it may be because your browser does not support Denobis’ chosen font and instead uses a serif font as backup.

Not all fonts have serifs, and there is a long-standing debate about why people should use serif or sans serif fonts. Serifists (as no one calls them but me) claim that serifs increase readability by guiding the eye and creating higher irregularity between letters with similar appearance. Sansists (which is also a word I made up) claim that serifs decrease readability by confusing the eye and detracting from the main letter shape.

With both sides using similar arguments to come to opposite conclusions, this debate has not been resolved. Serif fonts are the standard with printed books and the body text of newspapers. Sans serif fonts are the standard with webpages and headlines of newspapers.

There have been many styles of serif fonts in the last few centuries.

Old style or traditional serif fonts are modeled upon Roman inscriptions. Masons used serifs to undo the unevenness of their tools. They did this by creating strong, perpendicular lines. Examples of old style fonts include: Garamond and Palatino.

Transitional or baroque serif fonts are modeled in part on early medieval manuscripts and in part on old style fonts. Medieval scribes used many flourishes in their writing, mostly out of boredom. Examples of transitional fonts include: Times New Roman and Baskerville.

Modern or didone serif fonts are not modeled on anything in particular. Font designers in the 19th Century decided to create novel font, instead of looking to antiquity for inspiration. This created fonts with long, thin serifs and varied widths in the main letter shape. Examples of modern fonts include: Bodoni and Computer Modern.

Less popular serif styles include slab serif. This is where serifs are as thick as the main letter shape. Another less popular serif is know as wedge serif, where serifs are triangular and rounded.

There have also been many styles of sans serif fonts since the mid 19th Century.

Grotesque or realist fonts are the result of taking serif fonts and removing the serifs (they have been known, at different times, as Gothic, Egyptian, and Neo-Grotesque). They have constant width lines and a clean look. Examples of grotesque fonts include: Franklin Gothic and Helvetica.

Geometric or Bauhaus fonts are created by using regular geometric shapes. They have circular Os, equilateral As, and Zs that fit neatly in squares. Examples of geometric fonts include: Futura and Avenir.

Humanist fonts (the only ones without multiple names) are modeled on the handwriting of The Age of Enlightenment scholars. They have eccentric shapes, intended to be more interesting than grotesque fonts. Examples of humanist fonts include: Syntax and Trebuchet.

Less popular sans serif styles include script fonts, which are modeled on cursive handwriting and then modulated. They have exaggerated variation in line width.

Since the creation of the Internet, the number of existing fonts, especially amateur fonts, has rapidly increased. Modern fonts, made by coding as opposed to  molding, are easily designed and distributed. A growing category of fonts is the category of open source fonts, which are available for free on the Internet, with many distributed through Google Fonts.

If you are allowed to choose your font, the style of serif or sans serif is a primary factor in deciding. If there are no fonts you find adequate, then you can make your own using the many programs available online.

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