18 Confusing Typographic Terms Explained
Typographic terminology is sometimes very specific, and the nuances can be confusing. Understanding the distinctions will enable you to communicate more clearly, typographically speaking, and help you to make the best use of your fonts and software.
Character vs. glyph: A character is the symbol representing an individual letter, numeral, punctuation, sign, symbol, accent, or other elements in a typeface. A glyph is the actual representation of that character.
Several glyphs may represent one character, such as the lowercase a being represented by the default lowercase a, swash version, small cap, and superior a.
Typeface vs. font: A typeface is all the letters, numbers, punctuation, and other signs and symbols of a language system designed in a particular style.
A font (in today’s digital world) is a complete character set of a particular weight and style of a typeface in digital form. It is the delivery mechanism of a typeface, and is considered software.
Each font consists of one digital outline for every glyph, which then can be scaled to any size. In the days of metal type, a font was one version of a typestyle in one particular size. A typeface would then consist of many fonts, one for each size: thus Caslon Regular 10 point was one font, while every other size was considered a different font.
Italic vs. oblique: Italics are a slanted typestyle most commonly designed as a companion to a roman, or upright version.
It is usually a unique and separate design, and is often somewhat calligraphic in nature. Oblique refers to a slanted version of its upright companion with few or no design changes other than the angle. (A proper oblique is designed by the typeface designer, and not slanted by a computer command.)
Although these two terms have slightly different meanings, not all typefaces apply the technically correct term. For instance, in the many versions and rereleases of Helvetica, one can see both italic and oblique used for the name of the same design.
Slash vs. fraction bar: The slash (aka forward slash) is a diagonal line going from upper right to lower left, occasionally extending slightly below the baseline.
It is easily found on the keyboard, and is frequently used in numerical dates as in 1/25/58, as a substitute for a conjunction such as in East/West and Y/N, math and ratios, and URLs.
The fraction bar is also a diagonal line, but it is on a more extreme angle, and extends from the cap height to the baseline, and not above or below as do some slashes. It is designed specifically for diagonal fractions, and thus its width and weight is sensitive to each typeface design.
Diagonal vs. nut fractions: Diagonal fractions are those where the numerator and denominator are separated by a diagonal stroke (usually a fraction bar), while nut fractions, also called stacked or vertical fractions, are those where the top and bottom numerals are separated by a horizontal line.
Diagonal fractions are used for proportions, ratios and percentages, while nut fractions are frequently used in – but not limited to – math and scientific formulas.
Kerning vs. tracking: Kerning in the digital world is the addition or reduction of space between a pair of characters to improve the overall balance and consistency of the spacing.
Tracking, on the other hand, is the digital term for the addition or reduction of spacing between a range of characters.
This can be used to improve the overall spacing of a font at a particular size, or to create the appearance of a more open, letterspaced look, usually reserved for a brief, all cap setting.
Widow vs. orphan: A widow is a word, hyphenated word, or several short words that appear at the end of a paragraph.
They are considered undesirable in fine typography as they create a visual hole, whether they appear in-between two paragraphs, or on the bottom of a column of type.
An orphan, on the other hand, is similar, in that it too is a word, hyphenated word, or several short words, but appearing at the top of a column.
Orphans also create a visual hole in a line of type, resulting in a disturbance of the alignment and symmetry at the top of one or more columns. Both should be checked for towards the end of a project, and fixed if possible, either by altering the line breaks or column width, or by editing the copy to either eliminate the short line, or lengthen it.
Monospaced vs. proportional spacing: A monospaced font is one in which each character has the same total width (the width of the glyph plus the space added to the right and left) as in typewriter type as well as tabular ﬁgures.
The width and design of some glyphs are occasionally altered to create a better fit within the fixed width of the font.
Proportional spacing is the spacing used in most typefaces where each character has a unique width in proportion to the shape of each glyph.
Copyeditor vs. proofreader: A copy editor checks the text for accuracy, clarity, usage, consistency of style, as well as house style, if a requirement. This is most often done at the beginning of the design and typesetting process.
A proofreader is generally the last person to check the text before (and sometimes after) it goes into final production, whether it be print or digital media.
It usually consists of checking for spelling, grammar and tense, syntax, punctuation, extra spaces, and sometimes font size, styling, and other characteristics.