Anatomy of Letters

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Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Like most other things, this may be true for letterforms as well, but examining the parts can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the whole.

The most basic element of typography is the letter, each composed of unique shapes. Because it’s hard to discuss those shapes without specifying which part of the letter we mean, a specialized vocabulary has evolved to describe the anatomy of letters.

For graphic designers, the following terms may not come up in everyday conversation, but a solid grasp of the parts that make up letterforms will help you have a conversation with a famous typographer the day you run into her/him. Perhaps more importantly, understanding the anatomy of letters will also help you choose the right typeface for the right project, since you can better define and articulate the characteristics of the message. And of course knowing letterform anatomy vernacular will help you in your own type designs, should you ever decide to follow that noble but incredibly painstaking pursuit.

So without further ado, we give you the terminology that makes the type…

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  • Apex—The peak of a point-topped letter such as a capital A. An apex can be pointy, truncated, or have a diagonal cut as seen in Caslon and Garamond.
  • Arm—A horizontal projection off a letterform, as in the capital E, F and L.
  • Arch—A rounded top section connecting two vertical strokes, as in an h, n or m.
  • Ascender—The part of a lowercase letter that extends substantially above the x-height (more than just the overshoot). Ascenders usually, but not always, go above the cap height as well.
  • Axis—The angle of contrast, as may be seen by drawing a line through the thinnest parts of a letter O.
  • Beak—A short serif or projection typically seen at the top left of lowercase letters such as b and n, extending from the arms of an uppercase L, T or E, or projecting from the top right of a C/c, or the top left of an a.
  • Bowl—A curved portion of the letterform that completely encloses a counter, as in B, O, d or p.

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  • Bracket—A curve that connects a serif to the stem or stroke. Serifs may be bracketed or unbracketed.
  • Contrast—The relative difference in thickness (weight) between thin and thick strokes in a letter in which those strokes are commonly different, such as V or K. Contrast can also be seen in round letters such as O. “Modern” typefaces tend to have high contrast, whereas sans serif typefaces typically have low contrast.
  • Counter—The white or “negative” space(s) within a letterform. Counters may be either partially enclosed (such as C or U) or fully enclosed (B, D, O).
  • Crossbar—A horizontal stroke that either connects two sides of a letter or cuts across a vertical stem.
  • Cross stroke—The horizontal or diagonal stroke that cuts across a vertical stem.
  • Descender—A portion of a (usually lowercase) letterform that goes significantly below the baseline in a typeface, as seen in g, p and q, and sometimes J.
  • Ear—A small projection at the top right of a lowercase g.

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  • Eye—A small enclosed counter, such as that of the lowercase e.
  • Hairline—The thinnest line of a typeface composed of varying line weights, when that line is exceptionally thin. (Also, an exceedingly light weight of a typeface, in which all lines are incredibly thin.)
  • Leg—A lower diagonal or angled stroke that appears to support the letter, as in R, K or k.
  • Link—The stroke connecting the loop to the bowl in the two-story version of the lowercase g.
  • Ligature—Two or more separate letters which are joined together for aesthetic effect, often either to prevent a collision (often with fi, for example) or to reduce excessive space between them (as in Adobe’s Th ligatures). Alternatively, it sometimes refers only to the tying stroke(s) between these letters.
  • Loop—In a two-story lowercase g, the part that encloses the lower counter.
  • Overshoot—A small amount by which a curved portion of a letterform exceeds the baseline, cap height or x-height to create the visual impression that the curve is the same height or depth as a flat feature at the same height.
  • One-story—The simpler versions of lower-case a and g.

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  • Serif—Small decorative strokes projecting sideways from the end of the main structural strokes of a letterform.
  • Shoulder—Angled portion of a curving stroke in between the top horizontal portion and a vertical portion, as in h, n, m and S.
  • Spine—Main diagonal portion of the letter S.
  • Spur—A shorter-than-usual serif pointing in a single inwards direction, such as that at the top of letter C or a.
  • Stem—A main stroke in a letterform.
  • Swash—A curvaceous decorative element, either as a standalone ornament, or the extension of a normal stroke or serif for decorative purposes. Swashes often involve curlicues or calligraphic forms that cross over themselves or over other elements of the composition.
  • Tail—The diagonal stroke or open loop at the end of a letterform, especially if it involves an upturn, as in Q, y, or the single-story version of g. Some forms of t and a may have tails.
  • Terminal—The end of a stem or stroke, generally without a serif per se, but may have some other treatment, such as at the top of a two-story a.
  • Tittle—The dot on an i or j. Some also use it to refer to an accent (diacritic) replacing such a dot.
  • Two-story—The more complex forms of lowercase a and g.
  • X-height—The height of a typical lowercase letter such as the x, not including overshoot. Also sometimes called the mean height.

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One good way to familiarize yourself with the anatomy of letters is to draw your own from scratch. Get some paper and your favorite drawing tool and give it a try (check out these sketches as part of a great interview about type design with Proxima Nova designer Mark Simonson). 

Now that you know their proper associated terminology, you may find that designing your letterform parts can result in a pretty well informed, if not uniquely wonderful, whole. At the very least, you’ll be prepared for when you do run into that celebrity typographer.

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