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Superior letter: Wikis


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In typography and handwriting, a superior letter is a lower-case letter placed above the baseline and made smaller than ordinary script. Formerly quite common in abbreviations, the original purpose was to make handwritten abbreviations clearly distinct from normal words. These could also be used to enable the important words on signs to be larger. Technically, it is called a superscripted minuscule letter.

With the coming of printing, pieces of type were cast to enable them to appear in print. These are still commonly used in French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, though their appearance in English has diminished. Not every letter in the alphabet has a piece of type cast for it as a superior letter. In his book, Thinking in Type, Alex W. White says that there are only twelve such, and these are used in French and Spanish: a, b, d, e, i, l, m, n, o, r, s, and t.


Use in French

In French, for example, they appear in the abbreviation for "mademoiselle": Mlle. They also appear in abbreviations of titles: Msgr stands for "monseigneur". Their use in signage can be exemplified a fictitious storefront sign, Messrs Dupond & Dupont, Bandes Dessinées; on a sign, the name "Dupond" could appear nearer the corner, covered by "essrs".

Use in Spanish

In Spanish they are known as "voladitas" (literally, "little flying" letters), and are always underlined (where it is possible).

They are used to short any kind of words where there is not enough room for the entire one: Fca de caramelos ("fábrica de caramelos", candy's factory), but is more usual with ordinals: 3er ("tercer", third); titles: Da ("doña", mistress); personal compound given names Fco Javier (Francisco Javier), Ma Cristina (María Cristina) and regular administrative expressions: fdo ("firmado", signed).

Use in English

The English usage is primarily ordinal numerals: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and 4th; or, in the Chicago style, 2d and 3d. Similar to French usage, Mrs has seen use as well.

In the eighteenth century, they were commonly used to abbreviate typical given names, such as Jos for "Joseph".

Masculine and feminine ordinal indicators

Most of the manual and electric typewriters for Spanish and other languages have separated symbols devoted to o and a as a shorthand intended to be used primary with ordinals: 1o, 5a ("primero" and "quinta", first and fifth in Spanish), etc.

In computing, early 8-bit character sets as code page 437 for the original IBM PC (circa 1981) also had these characters. In ISO-8859-1 Latin-1, and later in Unicode, they are assigned to and are known as U+00AA FEMININE ORDINAL INDICATOR (ª) and U+00BA MASCULINE ORDINAL INDICATOR (º). Here, "feminine" and "masculine" has some sense only for a few Romance languages, in which grammatical gender is usually denoted by the suffixes -a and -o, respectively (as in Spanish).

They are used as follows: prima vittoria, Italian for "first victory", can be written 1ª vittoria; secundo ordo, meaning "second order", can be written 2º ordo.

In the most of common available computer fonts today, these characters are not underlined, and they seem merely superscripted a (a) and superscripted o (o, often confused with the degree sign ° due to this fact).

The Numero Sign

One abbreviation using a superior letter has been given its own, single-piece character, combining two characters: it's the Numero sign. Originally, this was just another use of a superior "o", abbreviating numero, the word for "number" in several Romance languages, but it often appeared in English: e.g., No 2 pencil, for "number-two pencil".

In Unicode, it is assigned to character U+2116 NUMERO SIGN (№), inside of the Letterlike symbols block.

N-th power of a number

Both the code page 437 (position 252) and Unicode (U+207F SUPERSCRIPT LATIN SMALL LETTER N) have a character () to represent the n-th power of a number or variable in mathematics, for example 3. This superscript usage of the lowercase n it is not considered as superior letter at all.

See also



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