Typography Terms 101: Everything You Need to Know

TypographyBarbs, beaks, brackets, bowls.

Baffled by typography terms? You’re not alone.

One of the most common questions we field at Print is what the heck typography’s various terms all mean. We called in Denise Bosler, author of Mastering Type: The Essential Guide to Typography for Print and Web Design, to serve as our official translator. Here, Denise shares a selection from her book breaking it all down:


apex: the top point of a letterform where two angled strokes meet


arm: a secondary stroke that extends horizontally or diagonally from a stroke at the top and does not connect to another stroke


ascender: the part of a lowercase letter that extends above the x-height


barb: the terminal for a curved capital serif letter


baseline: the horizon on which letters sit


beak: the terminal for a straight capital serif letter found on the horizontal strokes


body copy: the text that makes up a paragraph—it reads best when set between 8 and 11 points in size


bowl: a curved stroke that connects to either a vertical stroke or to itself


bracket: a piece that connects a stroke to a serif


closure: the principle that states the eye will complete a path of an object


compound modules: formed by combining modules horizontally, vertically or both


continuity: once the eye begins to follow something it will continue traveling in that direction until it encounters another object


counter: any enclosed space in a letterform. If the space is completely enclosed, it is referred to as a closed counter. An open counter occurs when a curved, straight or angled stroke does not connect to another stroke but still creates an enclosed space.


cross bar: a stroke that horizontally connects two strokes


cross stroke: a stroke that crosses over another stroke but doesn’t connect on either side


crotch: inside of a vertex


descender: the part of a lowercase letter that extends below the baseline


drop cap: a larger letter at the beginning of a paragraph that drops down into the lines of text below it


ear: the small extension that protrudes up and out from the top of a stroke or bowl and is often teardrop-shaped or rounded


em dash: a long dash that indicates either a change of thought or emphasis


en dash: a medium-length dash indicating a range of items or the passage of time


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eye: the closed counter of a lowercase e


font family: all the variations in weight, width and angle of a typeface


graphic text: text formatted to output as an image file


grid: a matrix of vertical and horizontal lines that come together to create a two-dimensional structure


hanging cap: a letter at the beginning of a paragraph that literally hangs outside the edge of the paragraph


headline: line of text that stands out from the rest of the page and sets the tone for the document, generally set at 18–24 points or larger in size


hyphen: a short dash used for words that break at the end of a sentence and for compound words


hyphenation: the splitting of a word at the end of a line and continuing onto the next line


indent: a small space before the first word of a paragraph equal to an em space, the space occupied by a capital M


inherent web text: text programmed to automatically resize to match the resolution and viewer’s browser preferences


italic: angled version of letterforms that are redrawn, but the letters remain consistent with the essence of the overall look


kerning: a manual adjustment of the space between two letters


leading: horizontal white space between lines of text


leg: a secondary stroke that extends horizontally or diagonally from the bottom of a letter


legibility: the ability to discern all parts of a character and all the styles within a font family


ligature: two or more letters that touch


lining numbers: numbers that line up along the cap height


link: the small piece which connects the upper bowl with the lower loop of a traditionally shaped lowercase g, also known as two-story g


live text: searchable and editable text


loop: the lower bowl of a traditionally shaped lowercase g, also known as two-story g


monogram: a design that contains overlapping letters, usually the first, middle and last initials of a person’s name


oblique: angling letterforms with little or no change to the letterfoms


old style numbers: numbers that have varying heights with ascenders and descenders when set along the baseline


optical alignment: aligning letters that are curved or pointed above the cap height, below the baseline or outside vertical alignment to allow them to align optically


point: measuring system used for type size—there are 72 points in an inch


prime marks: symbols that denote inch and feet, also known as dumb quotes


readability: the level of a word’s comprehension based upon font choice, size, style, kerning, tracking, case and location on the page


sans serif: typeface with no extra structural extensions coming from the horizontal and vertical strokes. Sans is a French word meaning “without”—hence the phrase sans serif means “without serif”


serif: small structural extensions that are at the end of a letter’s horizontal and vertical strokes. Serifs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Serif also refers to the category name of a font that has serif extensions.


shoulder: a short rounded stroke that connects two vertical strokes or a vertical stroke and a terminal


smart quotes: quotation marks that curl or angle toward the text, also called curly quotes


spine: the curved stroke through the middle of an s


spur: a small pointed extension typically coming off the top or bottom of a vertical stroke that connects to a rounded stroke—oftentimes on a serif lowercase letter


standup cap: a letter at the beginning of a paragraph that is several times larger than that of the surrounding text but shares the same baseline as the body copy


stress: the axis created by the thick and thin stroke contrast of a letter


stroke: a straight or curved line that creates the principal part of a letter


subhead: brief line of text that divides the body copy into sections between headlines and body copy


swash: the extra flourish that accompanies many script and blackletter style typefaces


tail: the stroke that crosses the lower half of an uppercase Q


terminal: a stroke ending without a serif


tracking: the spacing between all of the letters in a word or sentence


vertex: the bottom point of a letterform where two angled strokes meet


weight: varying degrees of thickness built into a font with a standard range being light, roman (also called book), medium, bold, heavy and black


whispering headline: a headline that fails to attract the attention of the viewer because it is too small, blends in with the text to which it is assigned or is of insufficient boldness or color contrast


x-height: the center area of the baseline and cap height, measured against the height of the lowercase x