Understanding Typefaces, Part 3
In Part 2, we went into the many different styles of typefaces, how they’re used, and why. Now let’s take a look at the anatomy of the letter forms.

The modern English alphabet consists of uppercase (capital) and lowercase letters. These are positioned along a baseline[The invisible line that a character of type rests upon.] as you can see in the image below (click on it for a larger view):

The example above uses Adobe Garamond, but x-height can vary from typeface to typeface as it’s based on that particular face’s lowercase x. The same is true for the cap height as well as the ascender and descender lines. All these linked examples use the same variety of faces, in the same order: Bitstream Bernhard Modern, Adobe Jenson, Adobe Prestige Elite, ITC Legacy Serif, Monotype Times New Roman, Adobe Nueva Standard, Bitstream Vera Serif, and Adobe Birch Standard.

There are certain numerals that have, in essence, ascenders and descenders. Oldstyle figures are a style of numeral which mimic lowercase letterforms like this example shows. Not all typefaces come with oldstyle figures, but when they do, it can give your work a more elegant and traditional look. To see the difference, look at this example with the same text, but using lining figures instead. You’ll see all the numerals are the same height, equal to the cap height.

The letters in our alphabet are made up of different parts. Below, in alphabetical order, are the words we use to describe them.

The upper point where two diagonal strokes come together, as on the uppercase A.



Experts disagree somewhat on the definition. Some say it refers to any horizontal stroke that’s attached on one end and free on the other (like in E or F), while others say it’s a horizontal stroke where one or both ends are unattached to the vertical stroke (as in T).

The portion of a lowercase letter that rises above the x-height for that typeface (b, d, f, h, k, l, t). Some typefaces have very tall ascenders that could cause them to run into parts of text above it. When this happens, the best solution is to increase the leading (line spacing) between the lines of type.

Bar/Cross Stroke
The horizontal stroke that connects vertical (H) or diagonal (A) strokes, or that cross a vertical stroke (f, t). In the former, the word bar is used, but in the latter, it’s called the cross stroke.

The projection that extends from the end points of arms or cross strokes on certain uppercase letters (E, F, L, T). Similar to a spur, but more pronounced.


The curved stroke of a letter that creates an enclosed space (B, D, O, P, Q, R, a, b, d, e, g, o, p, q), with the exception of the lower portion of a two-story lowercase g, which is called a loop.


The right angled stroke on the capital letter G, where the horizontal arm and the vertical stroke of the G meet. In some faces, the uppercase G doesn’t use a chin.


The fully or partially enclosed circular or curved negative space in a letter (B, C, D, G, O, P, Q, R, S, U, a, b, c, d, e, g, h, m, n, o, p, q, s, u). Some experts only use counter to refer to fully enclosed spaces, calling the partially enclosed areas the aperature. On the lowercase e, the space is also called the eye.

The point where an arm, leg, or shoulder meets a stem. If the juncture is less than 90°, it’s called an acute crotch, while a juncture of greater than 90° is called an obtuse crotch.


The portion of a lowercase letter that falls below the baseline (g, j, p, q, y). Some typefaces have very long descenders that could cause them to run into parts of text below it. When this happens, the best solution is to increase the leading (line spacing) between the lines of type.

The decorative flourish usually on the upper right side of the bowl on the lowercase g in certain typefaces.



The enclosed space of a lowercase e, called a counter on other letter forms.

The end of a stroke, usually a somewhat tapered curved end, not terminated in a serif. A Ball Terminal is a combination of a dot and the curved bit at the end of some tails and the end of some arms in certain faces.

The thinner stroke in typefaces with contrast between thick and thin strokes.



The downward sloping stroke of the uppercase and lowercase K, and the downward diagonal or sloped stroke on the uppercase R. There are some who also call the tail of an uppercase Q a leg.


The stroke that connects the upper and lower portions (bowl and loop) of a two-story lowercase g.



The lower enclosed space on a two-story lowercase g.



The projections off the main strokes of a letter form in a serif typeface. They can be bracketed, where there are supportive curves connecting the serif to the stroke (as they are in the example at right), or unbracketed, where the serif is sharply attached, usually at a 90° angle.

The curved stroke projecting from a straight stem, but not a bowl (h, j, m, n, r, u).



The central curved portion of both the uppercase and lowercase S.



The small projection (smaller than a serif) that reinforces the point at the end of a curved stroke, mainly found on the uppercase G, but can also be found on some uppercase and lowercase C and S letter forms.

The main vertical stroke, or main diagonal stroke on letters that don’t have a vertical stroke. Not all letters have a stem. For instance, C, O, and S usually don’t, but in some typefaces with a blocky design, they just may.


The thickening portion of a curved stroke with varying weight. The term stress is also used to describe the direction in which a curved stroke changes weight, as in oblique stress, semi-oblique stress, or vertical stress.

The fancy flourish used instead of a serif or terminal in some faces. It’s typically used on letters found at the beginning or end of a word. Swashes can be curled, twisted, or simply graceful extensions.


The descender on the uppercase Q and sometimes found on the leg of an uppercase R.



The lower point where two diagonal strokes come togethe (V, W, v, w).



That’s all for now…
In Part IV we’ll discuss typographical marks—what they are and when they’re used.

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