Confusing Type Terms, Part 1

The ability to talk about type and design, and say what you mean with clarity and accuracy, is an essential skill for designers. Within the language of typography, there are several pairs of terms in which items are either confused with each other, or just totally misunderstood. In Part 1 of this series, I will address and demystify what I consider to be the most common expressions that needing clarification.

Typeface vs. Font

These are two of the most commonly misunderstood of all terms in typography. Although frequently used interchangeably, they are technically not the same. Here’s the difference: a typeface is a design conceptualized and executed by a typeface designer. It refers a complete set of characters, such as the Garamond, Bodoni, or Helvetica typefaces. A font, on the other hand, is the delivery mechanism, that is, what is used to typeset the design. Back in the days of metal type, a font was a collection of letters punch cut in lead for a particular size. Therefore, 12 point Garamond Book Italic was one font, and each other style and size was a physically different font. In digital type, a font refers to the scalable digital outline used for all sizes, and is considered intellectual property.

This image is of the Gill Sans typeface.

This type drawer (usually referred to as a case, as in upper and lowercase) contains one font of lead type: 12 pt. Caslon Regular.

Character vs. Glyph

Once again, these terms are frequently used interchangeably, but actually refer to different things. A character is a symbol representing an individual letter, numeral, or other element in a typeface. A glyph is any representation of a character. Several glyphs may represent one character. For instance, the character ‘b’ can be represented by a standard version, an alternate and swash version, a small cap, as well as superscript and subscript glyphs – they are all the same character being represented by different glyphs.

This collection of glyphs all represent the character r.

The lowercase r character is represented by four glyphs in Jenson Italic: the standard r, a swash version, a small cap, and the superscript. The capital R on the right in red is a different character (not glyph) from the lowercase r.

Italic vs. Oblique

While both italic and oblique refer to slanted or angled versions of a typestyle, they typically refer to different things. True-drawn italics (as opposed to those that are artificially slanted by software) are an angled typeface most commonly designed as a companion to a roman, or upright design. They are frequently more calligraphic in nature, and can have different shapes and proportions, different widths, and a more fluid style.

An oblique typestyle also refers to a slanted version of the upright version, but with few or no design changes. Obliques are used in much the same way as italics, although they create less contrast, and therefore, a more subtle emphasis. They should be created by the typeface designer rather than the very unprofessional digital slanting which is possible with today’s software, which makes the shape, strokes and proportions unbalanced and out of whack.

I have found typeface families using the wrong term for either italics or obliques, or both for different versions of a design (such as Helvetica with obliques and Helvetica Neue with italics), but nonetheless these definitions are considered standard by most people working in the type world.

ITC Galliard Italic is an example of true italics that are a unique and separate design from its roman companion (upper). VF Sans has companion obliques, which are a slanted version of its upright companion, with few or no design changes (lower).

Slash vs. Fraction Bar

These similar glyphs are slightly different in design, and have varying functions. A slash, which is found on the lower right of the keyboard below the question mark, is an angled bar or line that is usually slightly above and below the cap height and baseline. The slash has many functions, including for numerical dates, division, and to connect or separate words or proper nouns.

A fraction bar is a diagonal stroke the size of a cap, and is designed specifically to be used in fractions. When setting automatic fractions, one usually types the numerals with a slash in-between, which is automatically replaced with a fraction bar when the Fraction command is applied to certain OpenType fonts that have fraction-making capability. Note that the weight, stroke angle and end stroke angle of the slash and fraction bar do vary from typeface to typeface.

The differences between the slash and the fraction bar (in red) in Minion are clearly seen above. The slash is shown used for numerical dates, while the fraction bar is used for a diagonal fraction.

Copy editing vs. Proofreading 

Copy editing and proofreading refer to two distinct kinds of review that are commonly confused or misunderstood. While there is some overlap between them, they are technically different.

Copy editing refers to checking text for grammatical correctness, usage, clarity, consistency of style, as well as house style, if required. Copy editing should be done before both proofreading and typesetting, unless it is done at the same time, by the same person. A copy editor’s goal can be summarized in the “five Cs”: make the copy clear, correct, concise, complete, and consistent. While copy editors should strive to deliver accurate copy in terms of proofreading considerations, proofreading might still be necessary (and is recommended) at a later stage.

A proofreader does the final check of text before it goes to the next stage, whether it be print, the web, or whatever media it is intended for. All text, including body copy, headlines, captions, titles, pull quotes, folios, etc., is checked for spelling, syntax, grammar and tense, punctuation, extra spaces, and sometimes font size, styling and other characteristics (often referred to as typographic proofreading). While word processing programs can pick up many spelling and syntax errors, they cannot read for context, and therefore can either miss or miscorrect spelling in certain contexts. (Read more here).

Both copy editing and proofreading are demonstrated here. They can also be done from within a word processing program.

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Please let us know if you have any suggestions for Confusing Type Terms, Part 2.

Posted on: September 13, 2017

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

3 Comments on Confusing Type Terms, Part 1

  1. In the UK what you’ve called a Type Drawer we call a Case (Upper Case, Lower Case, Double Case, Californian Case)

  2. There is a third version of the italic/oblique style. Some systems could if you changed to italic with the command Face Italic find the italic version of the font and if this did’nt exist, the current font was slanted to the value that was set systemwide. Not allways beautiful. Otherwise very interesting article.

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