Tricky Type Terms
By Ilene Strizver
Typographic terminology is sometimes very specific, and the nuances can be confusing. Here are three pairs of terms that are frequently misunderstood. They are related, but refer to different things. Understanding the distinctions will enable you to communicate more clearly, typographically speaking. This will also help you to make the best use of your fonts and software.
Italic vs. Oblique
Italics and obliques are two different varieties of angled, or slanted, typestyles. A true-drawn italic is an angled typeface typically designed as a companion to a roman (straight up and down) design. It is usually a separate design from its roman companion, with its own design features and character widths. Italic typefaces often “feel” somewhat calligraphic in spirit.
An oblique typestyle, on the other hand, is usually a slanted version of its roman companion, but with few or no design changes. It usually serves the same purpose as italics: to provide emphasis when used in conjunction with its roman version – although obliques tend to create somewhat less contrast. (There are several oblique exceptions, as shown in the illustration)
Tabular vs. Proportional Figures
With the growing use of OpenType fonts, more people are taking advantage of the availability of old style and lining figures. However, the difference between tabular and proportional spacing remains mysterious to many. The two styles serve distinct purposes, so knowing which to use when is worthwhile.
Tabular numerals all have the same total width (consisting of the width of the actual glyph plus the space “built in” before and after the glyph, so they don’t crash into each other). The consistent width allows tabular numerals to align vertically in tables – and price lists, invoices, financial statements, or other columns of figures.
Proportional figures, on the other hand, each have a unique width, creating even spacing and color within a multi-digit numeral and throughout a series of numerals. Unless you are setting figures in a column, use proportional figures to avoid the uneven spacing of tabular figures, especially around the numeral 1.
NOTE: Many OpenType fonts that offer more than one style of figures default to the tabular numeral setting, so you will need to select the style you want to use.
Standard vs. Discretionary Ligatures
A ligature is a character made by connecting or combining two or more characters. They may be combined into one continuous letterform, or just designed to “nest” together.
Standard ligatures serve a practical purpose: they eliminate the unattractive collision that occurs between some characters when set next to each other. The most common standard ligatures are the f-ligatures: fi, fl, sometimes ff, ffi, and ffl, and occasionally others, especially in OpenType fonts.
Discretionary ligatures are more decorative than standard ligatures and can be used at your discretion. They come in many varieties, but they’re all intended to add visual interest to your typesetting. Some of these characters combine common letter pairs (like Th) into a single, graceful design. Other ligatures, such as the ck, ct, and st combinations found in many historic designs, add elegance and a sense of authenticity to a setting. Still others are designed to convey a sense of fun, individuality, or, in the case of some decorative scripts, a spontaneous, almost hand-lettered feel.
- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 3rd edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.