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Serif and sans-serif 01.svg Sans-serif font
Serif and sans-serif 02.svg Serif font
Serif and sans-serif 03.svg Serif font
(red serifs)

In typography, serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols. A typeface that has serifs is called a serif typeface (or seriffed typeface). A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without”. Some typography sources refer to sans-serif typefaces as "grotesque" (in German "grotesk") or "Gothic," and serif types as "Roman."


Origins and etymology

Roman brushed capitals.

Serifs are thought to have originated in the Roman alphabet with inscriptional lettering—words carved into stone in Roman antiquity. The explanation proposed by Father Edward Catich in his 1968 book The Origin of the Serif is now broadly but not universally accepted: the Roman letter outlines were first painted onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks which flared at stroke ends and corners, creating serifs. The origin of the word serif is obscure, but apparently almost as recent as the type style. In The British Standard of the Capital Letters contained in the Roman Alphabet, forming a complete code of systematic rules for a mathematical construction and accurate formation of the same (1813) by William Hollins, it defined surripses, usually pronounced "surriphs", as "projections" which appear at the tops and bottoms of some letters, the O and Q excepted, at the beginning or end, and sometimes at each, of all." The standard also proposed that surripses may be derived from the Greek words συν (together) and ριψις (projection). In 1827, a Greek scholar, Julian Hibbert, printed his own experimental uncial Greek types. He explained that unlike the types of Bodoni's Callimachus, which were "ornamented (or rather disfigured) by additions of what I believe type-founders call syrifs or cerefs."

The oldest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are 1841 for "sans serif", given as sanserif, and 1830 for "serif". The OED speculates that serif was a back-formation from sanserif. Webster's Third New International Dictionary traces serif to the Dutch noun schreef, meaning "line, stroke of the pen", related to the verb schrappen, "to delete, strike through". Schreef now also means "serif" in Dutch.

The OED's earliest citation for "grotesque" in this sense is 1875, giving stone-letter as a synonym. It would seem to mean "out of the ordinary" in this usage, as in art grotesque usually means "elaborately decorated". Other synonyms include "Doric" and "Gothic," commonly used for Japanese Gothic typefaces.

East Asian equivalents

From right to left: sans-serif typeface, serif typeface, serif typeface with serifs in red.

In the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, there are common type styles based on the regular script for Chinese characters akin to serif and sans serif fonts in the West. In China the most popular category of serifed-like typefaces for body text is called Song (宋体, Songti), in Japan the most popular serif style is called Minchō (明朝), and in Taiwan and Hong Kong it is called Ming (明體, Mingti). The names of these lettering styles come from the Song and Ming dynasties, when block printing flourished in China. Because the wood grain on printing blocks ran horizontally, it was fairly easy to carve horizontal lines with the grain. However, carving vertical or slanted patterns was difficult because those patterns intersect with the grain and break easily. This resulted in a typeface that has thin horizontal strokes and thick vertical strokes. To prevent wear and tear, the ending of horizontal strokes are also thickened. These design forces resulted in the current Song typeface characterized by thick vertical strokes contrasted with thin horizontal strokes; triangular ornaments at the end of single horizontal strokes; and overall geometrical regularity.

In Japanese typography, the equivalent of serifs on kanji and kana characters are called uroko—"fish scales." In Chinese, the serifs are called either youjiaoti (有脚体, lit. "forms with legs") or youchenxianti (有衬线体, lit. "forms with ornamental lines").

The other common East Asian style of type is called black (黑体/體, Heiti) in Chinese and Gothic (ゴシック体 Goshikku-tai?) in Japanese. This group is characterized by lines of even thickness for each stroke, the equivalent of "sans serif." This style, first introduced on newspaper headlines, is commonly used on headings, websites, signs and billboards.


Serifed text in a dictionary of French slang.

In traditional printing serifed fonts are used for body text because they are considered easier to read than sans-serif fonts for this purpose.[1] However, the belief isn't supported by scientific study. Studies with child participants have found no difference in their ability to read either style of typeface.[2][3] Sans-serif fonts are more often used in headlines, headings, and shorter pieces of text and subject matter requiring a more casual feel than the formal look of serifed types.

Serifed fonts are the overwhelming typeface choice for lengthy text printed in books, newspapers and magazines.[4] For such purposes sans-serif fonts are more acceptable in Europe than in North America, but still less common than serifed typefaces.[citation needed]

While in print serifed fonts are considered more readable, sans-serif is considered more legible on computer screens.[2] Most web pages employ sans-serif type for this reason.[5] Hinting information, anti-aliasing, and subpixel rendering technologies have partially mitigated the legibility problem of serif fonts on screen. But the basic constraint of screen resolution — typically 100 pixels per inch or less — and small font sizes continues to limit their readability on screen.

As serifs originated in inscription they are generally not used in handwriting. A common exception is the printed capital I, where the addition of serifs distinguishes the character from lowercase L. Printed capital Js, and the numeral 1 are also often handwritten with serifs.


Serif fonts can be broadly classified into one of four subgroups: old style, transitional, modern and slab serif.

The Adobe Garamond typeface, an example of an old-style serif

Old Style

Old style or humanist typefaces date back to 1465, and are characterized by a diagonal stress (the thinnest parts of letters are at an angle rather than at the top and bottom), subtle differences between thick and thin lines (low line contrast), and excellent readability. Old style typefaces are reminiscent of the humanist calligraphy from which their forms were derived. An old style font normally has a left-inclining curve axis with weight stress at about 8 and 2 o'clock; serifs are almost always bracketed; head serifs are often angled.[6]

It has been said that the angled stressing of old style faces generates diagonal lock, which, when combined with their bracket serifs creates detailed, positive word-pictures (see bouma) for ease of reading. However, this theory is mostly contradicted by the parallel letterwise recognition model, which is widely accepted by cognitive psychologists who study reading.[citation needed]

Old style faces are sub-divided into Venetian and Aldine (also called Garalde). Examples of old style typefaces include Adobe Jenson (Venetian), Janson, Garamond, Bembo, Goudy Old Style, and Palatino (all Aldine or Garalde).

The Times New Roman typeface, an example of a transitional serif


Transitional or baroque serif typefaces first appeared in the mid-18th century. They are among the most common, including such widespread typefaces as Times New Roman (1932) and Baskerville (1757). They are in between modern and old style, thus the name "transitional." Differences between thick and thin lines are more pronounced than they are in old style, but they are still less dramatic than they are in modern serif fonts.

The Bodoni typeface, an example of a modern serif


Modern or Didone serif typefaces, which first emerged in the late 18th century, are characterized by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines. Modern typefaces have a vertical stress, long and fine serifs, with minimal brackets. Serifs tend to be very thin and vertical lines are very heavy. Most modern fonts are less readable than transitional or old style serif typefaces. Common examples include Bodoni, Didot, and Computer Modern.

The Rockwell typeface, an example of a slab serif

Slab serif

Slab serif or Egyptian typefaces usually have little if any contrast between thick and thin lines. Serifs tend to be as thick as the vertical lines themselves and usually have no bracket. Slab serif fonts have a bold, rectangular appearance and sometimes have fixed widths, meaning that all characters occupy the same amount of horizontal space (as in a typewriter). They are sometimes described as sans-serif fonts with serifs because the underlying character shapes are often similar to sans-serif typefaces, with less variation between thin and thick shapes on the character. (A subcategory of slab serif is the Clarendon typefaces, which do have small but significant brackets, and structures more similar to seriffed typefaces.) Slab serif typefaces date to around 1800.

Examples of slab serif typefaces include Clarendon, Rockwell and Courier.

See also


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers and Editors, (Springfield, 1998) p. 329
  2. ^ a b Literature Review Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces?
  3. ^ A Comparison of Two Computer Fonts: Serif versus Ornate Sans Serif [1]
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ The Principles of Beautiful Web Design, (2007) p. 113
  6. ^ Old Style Serif, 
  • Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.0), 2004, Hartley & Marks, Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Father Edward Catich, The Origin of the Serif: Brush writing and Roman letters, 1991, Hartley & Marks, Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, 2004, Princeton Architectural Press, New York
  • James Mosley, The Nymph and the Grot: the revival of the sanserif letter, 1999, London: Friends of the St Bride Printing Library

External links


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