In typography, a serif is a small line or stroke regularly attached to the end of a larger stroke in a letter or symbol within a particular font or family of fonts. A typeface or "font family" making use of serifs is called a serif typeface (or serifed typeface), and a typeface that does not include them is a sans-serif one. Some typography sources refer to sans-serif typefaces as "grotesque" (in German, grotesk) or "Gothic", and serif typefaces as "roman".
Serifs originated in the Latin 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. Another theory is that serifs were devised to neaten the ends of lines as they were chiselled into stone.
The origin of the word serif is obscure, but apparently is almost as recent as the type style. The book 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, 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 surripsis may be a Greek word derived from - (sun-, together) and (rhîpsis, projection).
In 1827, a Greek scholar Julian Hibbert printed with his own experimental uncial Greek types, remarking that the types of Giambattista Bodoni's Callimachus were "ornamented (or rather disfigured) by additions of what [he] believe[s] type-founders call syrifs or cerefs". The printer Thomas Curson Hansard referred to them as "ceriphs" in 1825. The oldest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are 1830 for serif and 1841 for sans 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). Yet, schreef is the past tense of schrijven (to write). The relation between schreef and schrappen is documented by Van Veen and Van der Sijs. In her Chronologisch Woordenboek, Van der Sijs lists words by first known publication in the language area that is The Netherlands today: schrijven, 1100; schreef, 1350; schrappen, 1406 (i.e. schreef is from schrijven [to write], not from schrappen [to scratch, eliminate by strike-through]).
The OEDs 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.
Serif fonts can be broadly classified into one of four subgroups: old style, transitional, Didone and slab serif, in order of first appearance.
Old-style typefaces date back to 1465, shortly after Johannes Gutenberg's adoption of the movable type printing press. Early printers in Italy created types that broke with Gutenberg's blackletter printing, creating upright and later italic styles inspired by Renaissance calligraphy. Old-style serif fonts have remained popular for setting body text because of their organic appearance and excellent readability on rough book paper. The increasing interest in early printing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a return to the designs of Renaissance printers and type-founders, many of whose names and designs are still used today.
Old style type is characterized by a lack of large differences between thick and thin lines (low line contrast) and generally, but less often, by a diagonal stress (the thinnest parts of letters are at an angle rather than at the top and bottom). 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 (they have curves connecting the serif to the stroke); head serifs are often angled.
Old-style faces evolved over time, showing increasing abstraction from what would now be considered handwriting and blackletter characteristics, and often increased delicacy or contrast as printing technique improved. Old-style faces have often sub-divided into Venetian (or humanist) and Garalde (or Aldine), a division made on the Vox-ATypI classification system. Nonetheless, some have argued that the difference is excessively abstract, hard to spot except to specialists and implies a clearer separation between styles than originally appeared.[b] Modern typefaces such as Arno and Trinité may fuse both styles.
Early "humanist" roman types were introduced in Italy. Modelled on the script of the period, they tend to feature an "e" in which the cross stroke is angled, not horizontal; an "M" with two-way serifs; and often a relatively dark colour on the page. In modern times, that of Nicolas Jenson has been the most admired, with many revivals. Garaldes, which tend to feature a level cross-stroke on the "e", descend from an influential 1495 font cut by engraver Francesco Griffo for printer Aldus Manutius, which became the inspiration for many typefaces cut in France from the 1530s onwards. Often lighter on the page and made in larger sizes than had been used for roman type before, French Garalde faces rapidly spread throughout Europe from the 1530s to become an international standard.
Also during this period, italic type evolved from a quite separate genre of type, intended for informal uses such as poetry, into taking a secondary role for emphasis. Italics moved from being conceived as separate designs and proportions to being able to be fitted into the same line as roman type with a design complementary to it.[c]
A new genre of serif type developed around the 17th century in the Netherlands and Germany that came to be called the "Dutch taste" ("goût Hollandois" in French). It was a tendency towards denser, more solid typefaces, often with a high x-height (tall lower-case letters) and a sharp contrast between thick and thin strokes, perhaps influenced by blackletter faces.
Examples of contemporary Garalde old-style typefaces are Bembo, Garamond, Galliard, Granjon, Goudy Old Style, Minion, Palatino, Renard, Sabon, and Scala. Contemporary typefaces with Venetian old style characteristics include Cloister, Adobe Jenson, the Golden Type, Hightower Text, Centaur, Goudy's Italian Old Style and Berkeley Old Style and ITC Legacy. Several of these blend in Garalde influences to fit modern expectations, especially placing single-sided serifs on the "M"; Cloister is an exception. Artists in the "Dutch taste" style include Hendrik van den Keere, Nicolaas Briot, Christoffel van Dijck, Miklós Tótfalusi Kis and the Janson and Ehrhardt types based on his work and Caslon, especially the larger sizes.
Transitional, or baroque, serif typefaces first became common around the mid-18th century until the start of the nineteenth. They are in between "old style" and "modern" fonts, thus the name "transitional". Differences between thick and thin lines are more pronounced than they are in old style, but less dramatic than they are in the Didone fonts that followed. Stress is more likely to be vertical, and often the "R" has a curled tail. The ends of many strokes are marked not by blunt or angled serifs but by ball terminals. Transitional faces often have an italic h that opens outwards at bottom right. Because the genre bridges styles, it is difficult to define where the genre starts and ends. Many of the most popular transitional designs are later creations in the same style.
Fonts from the original period of transitional typefaces include early on the "romain du roi" in France, then the work of Pierre Simon Fournier in France, Fleischman and Rosart in the Netherlands, Pradel in Spain and John Baskerville and Bulmer in England. Among more recent designs, Times New Roman (1932), Perpetua, Plantin, Mrs. Eaves, Freight Text and the earlier "modernised old styles" have been described as transitional in design.[d]
Later 18th-century transitional typefaces in Britain begin to show influences of Didone typefaces from Europe, described below, and the two genres blur, especially in type intended for body text; Bell is an example of this.[e]
Didone, or modern, serif typefaces, which first emerged in the late 18th century, are characterized by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines.[f] These typefaces have a vertical stress and thin serifs with a constant width, with minimal bracketing (constant width). Serifs tend to be very thin, and vertical lines very heavy. Didone fonts are often considered to be less readable than transitional or old-style serif typefaces. Period examples include Bodoni, Didot, and Walbaum. Computer Modern is a popular contemporary example. The very popular Century is a softened version of the same basic design, with reduced contrast. Didone typefaces achieved dominance of printing in the early nineteenth-century printing before declining in popularity in the second half of the century and especially in the twentieth as new designs and revivals of old-style faces emerged.
In print, Didone fonts are often used on high-gloss magazine paper for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, where the paper retains the detail of their high contrast well, and for whose image a crisp, "European" design of type may be considered appropriate. They are used more often for general-purpose body text, such as book printing, in Europe. They remain popular in the printing of Greek, as the Didot family were among the first to establish a printing press in newly independent Greece. The period of Didone types' greatest popularity coincided with the rapid spread of printed posters and commercial ephemera and the arrival of bold type. As a result, many Didone typefaces are among the earliest designed for "display" use, with an ultra-bold "fat face" style becoming a common sub-genre.
Slab serif typefaces date to about 1817.[g] Originally intended as attention-grabbing designs for posters, they have very thick serifs, which tend to be as thick as the vertical lines themselves. Slab serif fonts vary considerably: some such as Rockwell have a geometric design with minimal variation in stroke width--they are sometimes described as sans-serif fonts with added serifs. Others such as those of the "Clarendon" model have a structure more like most other serif fonts, though with larger and more obvious serifs. These designs may have bracketed serifs that increase width along their length.
Because of the clear, bold nature of the large serifs, slab serif designs are often used for posters and in small print. Many monospace fonts, on which all characters occupy the same amount of horizontal space as in a typewriter, are slab-serif designs. While not always purely slab-serif designs, many fonts intended for newspaper use have large slab-like serifs for clearer reading on poor-quality paper. Many early slab-serif types, being intended for posters, only come in bold styles with the key differentiation being width, and often have no lower-case letters at all.
Examples of slab-serif typefaces include Clarendon, Rockwell, Archer, Courier, Excelsior, TheSerif, and Zilla Slab. FF Meta Serif and Guardian Egyptian are examples of newspaper and small print-oriented typefaces with some slab-serif characteristics, often most visible in the bold weights. In the late twentieth century, the term "humanist slab-serif" has been applied to typefaces such as Chaparral, Caecilia and Tisa, with strong serifs but an outline structure with some influence of old-style serif typefaces.
During the nineteenth century, genres of serif type besides conventional body text faces proliferated. These included "Tuscan" faces, with ornamental, decorative ends to the strokes rather than serifs, and "Latin" or "wedge-serif" faces, with pointed serifs, which were particularly popular in France and other parts of Europe including for signage applications such as business cards or shop fronts.
Serifed fonts are widely used for body text because they are considered easier to read than sans-serif fonts in print. However, scientific study on this topic has been inconclusive. Colin Wheildon, who conducted scientific studies from 1982 to 1990, found that sans serif fonts created various difficulties for readers that impaired their comprehension. According to Kathleen Tinkel, studies suggest that "most sans serif typefaces may be slightly less legible than most serif faces, but ... the difference can be offset by careful setting".
Sans-serif are considered to be legible on computer screens. According to Alex Poole, "we should accept that most reasonably designed typefaces in mainstream use will be equally legible". A study suggested that serif fonts are more legible on a screen but are not generally preferred to sans serif fonts. Another study indicated that comprehension times for individual words are slightly faster when written in a sans serif font versus a serif font.
When size of an individual glyph is 9-20 pixels, proportional serifs and some lines of most glyphs of common vector fonts are smaller than individual pixels. Hinting, spatial anti-aliasing, and subpixel rendering allow to render distinguishable serifs even in this case, but their proportions and appearance are off and thickness is close to many lines of the main glyph, strongly altering appearance of the glyph. Consequently, it is sometimes advised to use sans-serif fonts for content meant to be displayed on screens, as they scale better for low resolutions. Indeed, most web pages employ sans-serif type. Recent introduction of desktop displays with 300+ dpi resolution might eventually make this recommendation obsolete.
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. The printed capital J and the numeral 1 are also often handwritten with serifs.
Below are some images of serif letterforms across history:
The roman type of Nicolas Jenson
De Aetna, printed by Aldus Manutius
1611 book, with arabesque ornament border
The Romain du roi, the first "transitional" typeface
Title page by John Baskerville, 1757
Alphabet by Pierre-Simon Fournier in his Manuel typographique, 1760s
Transitional type by Joan Michaël Fleischman of Amsterdam, 1768
Modern-face types by the Amoretti Brothers, 1797
Miller and Richard's Modernised Old Style, a reimagination of pre-Didone typefaces
William Morris's Golden Type in the style of Jenson and other typefaces of his Kelmscott Press
ATF's "Garamond" type, an example of historicist printing
Memorial plaque by Eric Gill, c. 1920s
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 Mainland China, the most popular category of serifed-like typefaces for body text is called Song (, Songti); in Japan, the most popular serif style is called Minch? (); and in Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is called Ming (, 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. In accordance with Chinese calligraphy (kaiti style in particular), where each horizontal stroke is ended with a dipping motion of the brush, 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 (, lit. "forms with legs") or youchenxianti (?, lit. "forms with ornamental lines").
The other common East Asian style of type is called black (/?, Heiti) in Chinese and Gothic (, 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.
[On the Aldine Press in Venice changing over to types from France]: the press followed precedent; popular in France, [these] types rapidly spread over western Europe.
[On Robert Estienne's typefaces of the 1530s]: Its outstanding design became standard for Roman type in the two centuries to follow...From the 1540s onwards French Romans and Italics had begun to infiltrate, probably by way of Lyons, the typography of the neighbouring countries. In Italy, major printers replaced the older, noble but worn Italian characters and their imitations from Basle.
De Aetna was decisive in shaping the printers' alphabet. The small letters are very well made to conform with the genuinely antique capitals by emphasis on long straight strokes and fine serifs and to harmonise in curvature with them. The strokes are thinner than those of Jenson and his school...the letters look narrower than Jenson's, but are in fact a little wider because the short ones are bigger, and the effect of narrowness makes the face suitable for octavo pages...this Roman of Aldus is distinguishable from other faces of the time by the level cross-stroke in 'e' and the absence of top serifs from the insides of the vertical strokes of 'M', following the model of Feliciano. We have come to regard his small 'e' as an improvement on previous practice.
Kis's Amsterdam specimen of c. 1688 is an important example of the increasing tendency to regard a range of roman and italic types as a coherent family, and this may well have been a conscious innovation. But italics were romanised to a greater degree in many earlier handwritten examples and occasional earlier types, and Jean Jannon displayed a full range of matching roman and italic of his own cutting in his 1621 specimen...[In appendix] [György] Haiman notes that this trend is foreshadowed in the specimens of Guyot in the mid-sixteenth century and Berner in 1592.
Although types on the 'Aldine' model were widely used in the 17th and 18th centuries, a new variant that was often slightly more condensed in its proportions, and darker and larger on its body, became sufficiently widespread, at least in Northern Europe, to be worth defining as a distinct style and examining separately. Adopting a term used by Fournier le jeune, the style is sometimes called the 'Dutch taste', and sometimes, especially in Germany, 'baroque'. Some names associated with the style are those of Van den Keere, Granjon, Briot, Van Dijck, Kis (maker of the so-called 'Janson' types), and Caslon.