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Serif

In typography, serifs are non-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols. A font that has serifs is called a serif font (or seriffed font). A font without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans="without". Some typography sources refer to sans serif typefaces as "grotesque" (in German "grotesk") or "gothic", and serif types as "roman". These terms are no longer commonly used however, except in specific font names.

Origins & etymology

Serifs are thought to have originated in the Roman alphabet with inscriptional lettering—words carved into stone in Roman antiquity. The explanation proposed by Father Edward Catich in his 1968 book The Origin of the Serif is now broadly but not universally accepted: the Roman letter outlines were first brushed onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks which flared at stroke ends and corners, creating serifs.

The origin of the word "serif" is obscure, but apparently almost as recent as the type style. The oldest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are 1841 for "sans serif", given as sanserif, and 1830 for "serif". The OED speculates that "serif" was a back-formation from "sanserif". Webster's Third New International Dictionary traces "serif" to the Dutch schreef, meaning wrote, and ultimately through Dutch schrijven, German schreiben and Latin scribere, all meaning "to write". Schreef now also means "serif" in Dutch.

The OED's earliest citation for "grotesque" in this sense is 1875, giving stone-letter as a synonym. It would seem to mean "out of the ordinary" in this usage, as in art grotesque usually means "elaborately decorated". Other synonyms include "Doric" and "Gothic", commonly used for Japanese Gothic typefaces.

In the Chinese and Japanese languages, there are two common typefaces based on the regular script for Chinese characters akin to serif and sans serif fonts in the West. The most popular for body text is a family of fonts called the Song typeface ( Songti), also known as Minchō in Japan, and Ming typeface (Mingti) in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The names of these fonts come from the Song and Ming dynasties, when block printing flourished in China. Because the wood grain on printing blocks ran horizontally, it was fairly easy to carve horizontal lines with the grain. However, carving vertical or slanted patterns was difficult because those patterns intersect with the grain and break easily. This resulted in a typeface that has thin horizontal strokes and thick vertical strokes. To prevent wear and tear, the ending of horizontal strokes are also thickened. These design forces resulted in the current Song typeface characterized by thick vertical strokes contrasted with thin horizontal strokes; triangular ornaments at the end of single horizontal strokes; and overall geometrical regularity.

The other common group of fonts is called the black typeface ( Heiti) in Chinese and Gothic typeface ( Goshikku-tai?) in Japanese. This group is characterized by straight lines of even thickness for each stroke, akin to sans serif styles. This group of fonts, first introduced on newspaper headlines, is commonly used on headings, websites, signs and billboards.

In Japanese typography, the equivalent of serifs on kanji and kana characters are called uroko—"fish scales." In Chinese, the serifs are called either youjiaoti (lit. "forms with legs") or youchunxianti ( lit. "forms with ornamental lines").

Usage

In traditional printing seriffed fonts are used for body text because they are widely believed to be easier to read than sans-serif fonts for this purpose. Sans-serif fonts are used for shorter pieces of text and subject matter requiring a more casual feel than the formal look of seriffed types. Sans serif types have recently begun to supplant seriffed types for headings with a 'cleaner' look.

Seriffed fonts are the overwhelming typeface choice for lengthy text printed in books, newspapers and magazines. For such purposes sans serif fonts are more acceptable in Europe than in North America, but still less common than seriffed typefaces.

While in print seriffed fonts are considered more readable, sans-serif is considered more legible on computer screens. For this reason the majority of web pages employ sans-serif type. Hinting information, anti-aliased and sub-pixel rendering technologies have partially mitigated the legibility problem of serif fonts, but the basic constraint of coarse screen resolution—typically 100 pixels per inch or less—continues to limit their readability on screen.

Classification

Serif fonts can be broadly classified into one of four subgroups: old style, transitional, slab serif, or modern.

Old Style

Old style typefaces date back to 1465, and are characterized by a diagonal stress (the thinnest parts of letters are at an angle rather than at the top and bottom), subtle differences between thick and thin lines (low line contrast), and excellent readability. Old style typefaces are reminiscent of the humanist calligraphy from which their forms were derived.

It has been said that the angled stressing of old style faces generates diagonal lock, which, when combined with their bracket serifs creates detailed, positive word-pictures (see bouma) for ease of reading. However, this theory is mostly contradicted by the parallel letterwise recognition model, which is widely accepted by cognitive psychologists who study reading.

Old style faces are sub-divided into Venetian and Aldine or Garalde. Examples of old style typefaces include Jenson (Venetian), Garamond, Bembo, Goudy Old Style, and Palatino (all Aldine or Garalde).

Transitional

Transitional (or "baroque") serif typefaces first appeared in the mid-18th century. They are among the most common, including such widespread typefaces as Times Roman (1932) and Baskerville (1757). They are in between modern and old style, thus the name "transitional." Differences between thick and thin lines are more pronounced than they are in old style, but they are still less dramatic than they are in modern serif fonts.

The Rockwell typeface, an example of a slab serif

Slab Serif

Slab serif (a.k.a. "Egyptian") typefaces usually have little if any contrast between thick and thin lines. Serifs tend to be as thick as the vertical lines themselves and usually have no bracket. Slab serif fonts have a bold, rectangular appearance and sometimes have fixed widths, meaning that all characters occupy the same amount of horizontal space (as in a typewriter). They are sometimes described as sans-serif fonts with serifs because the underlying character shapes are often similar to sans serif typefaces, with less variation between thin and thick shapes on the character. (A subcategory of slab serif is the Clarendon typefaces, which do have small but significant brackets, and structures more similar to seriffed typefaces.) Slab serif typefaces date to around 1800. Examples of slab serif typefaces include Clarendon, Rockwell and Courier.

Modern

Modern serif typefaces, which first emerged in the late 18th century, are characterized by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines. Modern typefaces have a vertical stress, long and fine serifs, with minimal brackets. Serifs tend to be very thin and vertical lines are very heavy. Most modern fonts are less readable than transitional or old style serif typefaces. Common examples include Bodoni, Century Schoolbook and Computer Modern (the font family that comes with the TeX and LaTeX open-source computer typography systems).


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