Type Terminology and Definitions

Before we dive into Type selection we’ll do a few things: clear terminology and setup some common definitions to work from. The first one is the difference between typeface and font and then we’ll dive into a short (and incomplete) glossary of typographical terms

Font versus Typeface

I’ve been guilty of this: use font and type face interchangeably. They are most definitely not the same thing and should not be used as if they are.

Typeface refers to the design of the font.

Fonts is the media that contains typefaces and allows you to use them in your projects.

The best analogy I’ve heard about is that the relationship between typeface and font is analogous to the relationship between music and mp3. One is the content and the other is the media that content is delivered in.

For more information, check out font or typeface and Styles, Weights, Widths — It’s All in the (Type) Family both at Fontfeed.com.

Font Glossary

Visual representation of type related terms
Visual representation of type related terms

Definitions taken from Fontshop’s Typography Glossary and Typography Deconstructed’s Type Glossary

The capitals in a typeface. The name refers to the days of metal type, as the capitals were kept in the upper part of the type case.
The capital letters of the alphabet are uppercase glyphs. Uppercase letters are normally used at the beginning of sentences and as the first letter of proper names.
The small letters in a typeface. The name refers to the days of metal type, as the small letters were kept in the lower part of the type case.
The little letters or non-capital letters of the alphabet are lowercase glyphs. They make up the bulk of written text, with uppercase or capital letters used primarily only to start sentences or proper names.
An artistic interpretation, or design, of a collection of alphanumeric symbols. A typeface may include letters, numerals, punctuation, various symbols, and more — often for multiple languages. A typeface is usually grouped together in a family containing individual fonts for italic, bold, condensed, and other variations of the primary design. Even though its original meaning is one single style of a type design, the term is now also commonly used to describe a type family (usually only with the basic styles regular, italic, bold, bold italic).
(also, fount) A collection of letters, numbers, punctuation, and other symbols used to set text (or related) matter. Although font and typeface are often used interchangeably, font refers to the physical embodiment (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) while typeface refers to the design (the way it looks). A font is what you use, and a typeface is what you see.
Any part in a lowercase letter that extends above the x-height, found for example in ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘f’, ‘h’, ‘k’, etc. Some types of ascenders have specific names.
The ascenders of some letters may touch or almost touch letters in the line above causing awkward or distracting patterns. This is most likely to happen or be obvious when a line of text with tall ascenders is below a line of text with long descender. To resolve the problem of touching ascenders and descender you can: Increase the leading (line spacing) between lines of type; Choose a different typeface; For headlines and subheads, some careful editing/re-wording can eliminate the problem; Changing the alignment of the text may also help
An imaginary line drawn from top to bottom of a glyph bisecting the upper and lower strokes is the axis. The slant of the axis (or lack thereof) often helps determine the type classification.
An imaginary line drawn from top to bottom of a glyph bisecting the upper and lower strokes is the axis. For typefaces that exhibit changes in the thickness of curved strokes, the inclination of the axis of the lowercase o is used to measure the angle of stress. A completely vertical axis indicates a design with an angle of 0 or vertical stress. When the axis leans to the left or right the design has angled (positive or negative) stress. Early styles of typefaces generally shared similar axis or stress angles.
The axis or design axis is also an adjustable attribute of some fonts, such as Multiple Master fonts. Adjusting the design axis results in variations in the weight, width, size, and other features of the typeface.
The bracket is a curved or wedge-like connection between the stem and serif of some fonts. Not all serifs are bracketed serifs.
The imaginary line upon which the letters in a font appear to rest.
Cap Height
The height from the baseline to the top of the uppercase letters (not including diacritics).
A triangular, serif-like protrusion at the end of a stroke in certain serif type designs.
The main curved stroke in the letter ‘S’ and ‘s’.
The enclosed or partially enclosed circular or curved negative space (white space) of some letters such as d, o, and s.
Any part in a lowercase letter that extends below the baseline, found for example in g, j, p, q, y, etc. Some types of descenders have specific names.
For contrast, see Ascender
A diacritic is a ancilliary mark or sign added to a letter. Accents are one type of diacritics. In the Latin alphabet their function is to change the sound value of the letters to which they are added; in other alphabetical systems like Arabic or Hebrew they may indicate sounds (vowels and tones) which are not conveyed by the basic alphabet.
The curved part projecting downward from a stem in the lowercase ‘h’, ‘m’, ‘n’.
Small Caps (SC)
Small caps are capital letters that are approximately as high as the x-height of the lowercase letters. When properly designed small caps are absent in the selected font, many applications can create small caps by scaling down the capitals. However this makes these fake small caps too light and narrow, and they don’t harmonize properly with the lowercase. Originally small caps were only available for the roman text weight(s), but nowadays many type families also have them for the italic styles and the bolder weights.
When small caps are built-in as OpenType features, certain (older) operating systems and applications will not be able to access them.
Spacing refers to the distribution of horizontal space on both sides of each character in a font to achieve a balanced and even texture. Spacing problems in difficult letter combinations (exceptions) are solved with kerning. Well-spaced fonts need comparatively less kerning pairs.
Kerning refers to the horizontal space between individual pairs of letters (a kerning pair), and is used to correct spacing problems in specific letter combinations like “VA”. Well-spaced fonts need comparatively less kerning pairs. Fonts that are properly kerned appear evenly spaced without large open gaps of white space between any two characters.
Its original meaning is increasing the vertical space between lines of metal type by literally inserting lead strips. In the digital age it now means the vertical space between lines of text, from baseline to baseline.
In typography, a serif is the little extra stroke found at the end of main vertical and horizontal strokes of some letterforms.
Sans Serif
Typeface that without extensions at the letter’s termination points. Sans serif type lends a clean and sharp appearance to the text, and is suitable for headlines or highlighted matter. Such type, however, is known to retard readability of large bodies of text, specially when less than 10 point in size.
Literally ‘without serif’.
The descending, often decorative stroke on the letter ‘Q’.
The height of the lowercase letters, disregarding ascenders or descenders, typically exemplified by the letter x. The relationship of the x-height to the body defines the perceived type size. A typeface with a large x-height looks much bigger than a typeface with a small x-height at the same size.
A company that designs and/or distributes typefaces; a type manufacturer. The name originated in the days of metal type when type was made from molten lead.

There are many more terms to define but I believe these are enough to get us started. Check the references listed at the beginning of the glossary for additional terms.

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