Font vs typeface: you’re all right

Font vs typeface: you’re all right

National Public Radio shared an interesting story about the redesigning of Helvetica. By far, Helvetica is used more often than any other face, so why redesign? Technical reasons, mostly to do with changing times. It’s a great story, but not for here.

Whew, what a relief. That made all the difference, huh?

Naturally, there were thousands of comments on their website, for and against. Next came the passive-aggressive “oh you said font when you meant typeface.” Then, like they do, the design snobs turned on each other like wild dogs in a feeding frenzy of who-knows-more.

Perhaps my favorite was the woman who said, “As a type designer, you should have said know-it-alls, all hyphenated with no apostrophe, not know it all’s.” She was right about the grammar, but her comment was as weird as if she had suggested, “As a plumber, I say you should get your tires rotated.”

I’ll bet my lunch that she’s not even a type designer. She works on page layout. Maybe a typesetter. You’re a type designer if you’ve created your own typeface from scratch. Maybe named it after yourself, like “Mr. Helvetica.” And if so, you’re way too cool to be scrapping it out with the rest of us in the comments of NPR’s website.

Font and typeface used to be very different. Like all things typographic, we snobs love to go back to terms used in the letterpress days, when everything was set by hand and made of metal and needed oil. But they’re not anymore, and those differences aren’t helpful. Back then, a font was a box of letters. You got them out and put them in a row to make a sentence. If you needed bigger or bolder letters, you pulled out another font from another box.

Nobody will jump you if you say typeface, because it is a general term for what you’re looking at. Do you admire the lettering on a magazine cover? Nice typeface! Proud of how your kid wrote on the sidewalk? Nice typeface!

So if there’s a a hair to split today, it’s here: a font is the tool you use to express your typeface. If Helvetica Regular 10pt exists as a different document on your computer than, say, Helvetica Regular 24pt, you have two fonts. (Back in the early Mac days, I had a unique font for every type size available.) Thanks to modern computer pixel fairy dust, we now use a single font to make any type size. But still, the font is the individual file on your computer.

Back in caveman days, Macs required a separate font for each size available. Cool!

So if you want to differentiate font from typeface, think of them this way: the lettering your kid drew on the sidewalk is a typeface made without a font. It was made with chalk, and your kid.

Zapf Dingbats is a computer font full of useful symbols—but it’s not a typeface.

My brilliant friend Frank is a linguist. I love this kind of stuff and pester him often with such questions. Because I actually listen to his answers, I know this is what he would say about font vs typeface:

“If two or more people use one word and they all understand what it means, it’s the right word. Words aren’t inherently right or wrong — they’re the tools we use for communicating. If they communicate successfully and reliably, they’re the right words.”

Can you imagine how disappointed I was? But I must admit, his wisdom is liberating.

So if you say “Helvetica is a great font and doesn’t need redesigning,” and all of your officemates know exactly what you mean, “font” was the right word.

I just can’t work with you.

Is it ketchup or catsup?

Is it ketchup or catsup?

Words matter. You want to get it right. So when it comes to ketchup versus catsup, which should you be using?

Ketchup.

See? See? I can get to the point. But I’m still going to ramble on about all the fun background bits. Like this, from our Department of Repetitive Redundancy: is “tomato” a needless modifier in tomato ketchup?

Actually, it isn’t. Tomato flavored ketchup is so much more popular in the United States that we forget about the original flavor: fish.

Funny that fish ketchup didn’t catch on here. It was the original flavor of ketchup for hundreds of years in China. Called ke-tsiap (as best we can spell it), it was a salty fermented condiment usually just called “sauce.” Like so many things, traders brought it to Europe and manufacturers began tinkering with the ingredients. There are a few other flavors available today, which nobody eats. But catsup is a little closer to the original pronunciation.

Tomato catsup became a popular staple in England, appearing in ads in the 1800s, using both spellings. Heinz began marketing it in the U.S. as Tomato Ketchup, then Catsup, then back to Ketchup again. Del Monte came out with a similar product, but labeled it Catsup so as not to be too much of a copycat. Consumers were left to figure out which was correct, and to discover the two were pretty much the same thing.

Sometime around 1988, Del Monte, seeing that most people were using the spelling ketchup, switched their labeling to match. Some companies go so far as to drop the word tomato from the label, since no one seems interested in any other flavor. I suppose you could count Heinz “Mayochup Saucy Sauce,” a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup—and apparently, sauce that is saucy. (Seriously, how much do their marketing folks get paid?) But in the end we’re all leaning hard toward ketchup, so if you want to run with the popular kids, that’s your spelling.

How to catch typos

How to catch typos

Typos heading, spelled "typoes"

I got an email from my beloved Alamo Drafthouse movie theater. A new location was about to open, right in my neighborhood. Hooray! Right after that email, I received this emergency follow-up:

Just as an update, the $5 tickets was a miscommunication and we will be charging FULL PRICE tickets for Soft Opening except on $5 Tuesday. We apologize for the type and lets push forward!

Un-hooray. But I had to laugh: one typo in the message, but dang — what an exquisite typo. They misspelled typo.

It’s bound to happen when you rush out a correction, and it’s double-painful. So, Alamo, want some tips to help you mind your p’s and q’s?

Minding your p’s and q’s

That catchy phrase makes sense. Lowercase p and q look a lot alike. But the cliché originated in letterpress days where it was especially appropriate. When setting blocks of type, a printer has to remember that all his letters are backwards. If it looks like a p on the block, it’ll be a q when it gets printed to paper.

letterpress block including p and q
Nope. That’s q on the left, and a p on the right.

Ooo-ooo-oooo! And let me digress some more! Letterpress days also gave us the description uppercase and lowercase. Capital letters were generally kept in the top drawer — called a case — while the matching lowercase letters were kept in a lower case.

So cliché

Did I say cliché? That word has printing roots too, although it’s a long walk. When a big block of type was to be used often, printers would save time by setting the whole thing in a single metal casting. Then they could release all those individual letters for other jobs. This was called stereotyping, and you were sure to get predictable, cookie-cutter results. While most of Europe used this technique for full pages of text, the French experimented with using smaller blocks of repetitive or useful phrases. They called these clichés, which literally means click, because a typesetter could just click the phrase into place without having to redo all the individual letters.

Oh yeah. Typos.

That’s where I started with this, huh. I promised to give you some tips to catch all your typos so I don’t spot them and make fun of you.

It’s just that I love a good typo. To prove I’m not just being arrogant, I’ll share with you my most impressive goof. Years ago I released an album of 13 original songs, titled Used Without PermissionIt had been out for two weeks before a friend called to tease me that I had spelled my own name wrong on the album cover. Besides being a musician and a graphic designer, I’m a professional proofreader. I know how to spell my name, so I just called him a liar.

Then I looked. There it was. It was such an exquisite mistake that I decided to leave it. (You can go look. It’s still there.) Oddly, not one person has noticed it since.

Oh yeah. Typos!

So here are my suggestions (finally) to help you catch more typos:

  • Use your spell-checker first. One in four manuscripts I proofread have mistakes an automated checker would have caught. Spell-check doesn’t get everything right, but it can tease most typos out in an easy flash round, leaving you more brain energy to catch the trickier stuff.
  • Don’t proof your own work. You know what the words are supposed to say, and your brain will help out by subconsciously fixing misspelled words. Like your own name.
  • Read in incandescent or LED light. Flourescent light has a very slow flicker rate, which wears out your eyes faster. That’s why everyone in your office is happiest sitting by the window.
  • Follow with your finger. Or use a ruler guide. I’m a little dyslexic, so my eyes have to really focus. But you more perfect mortals tend to read in chunky blocks. Your marvelous brain processes all that data in a Gestalt kind of way that forgives errors. A pointer keeps your focus on a smaller spot.
  • Read aloud. It slows down your brain and keeps you from scanning.
  • Proof backwards, or from the bottom up. This won’t catch grammar errors, but it’s a great way to keep your brain from auto-correcting, by forcing you see each word individually.
  • Put it to paper. Nobody knows why. Editing on screen is convenient, but people are far more effective when proofing from a real live sheet of paper.
  • Knock it off after 40 minutes. Proofing is terrible on your eyes as well as your brain. After every half hour, give yourself a break for ten minutes or so. Focus on something distant, preferably something moving, like traffic or that protest across the street. This resets and stretches your eyes back to a more natural state. Cave men didn’t proofread.
  • Sleep on it. This is the best way to catch clumsy or unclear sentences. Things make sense when you know what you meant. Come back later and you’ll find yourself saying, “Wait — what?”
  • Publish it. Nothing makes a typo jump out at you like seeing it in the final product.

Follow this advice, and if you’re careful, and prepared, and skilled, and don’t have any typos, you’ll make a good impression.

Yep, that’s another phrase from the printing industry.

[ Happy sigh. ]
Forward vs foreword

Forward vs foreword

Charging army moving forward

About one in twenty manuscripts we receive starts with a “Forward.” That makes sense because at that point it’s the only direction you can go in the book, unless you want to read the title page again.

The problem is that it is wrong.

Where are we going with this?

Forward is a direction. A Foreword is a message about the book to come. As in, “let’s have a word about this book before we start. A fore word.

It is not part of the story itself. A Foreword is written by someone besides the author. Her mother, perhaps. It’s like an Introduction, but an Introduction is usually written by the author and is considered part of the book itself. If you lop off the Foreword, the rest of the book makes sense just fine.

Some people get creative and use “Forward” as the title of their Foreword. (Man, this is getting tough to proofread!) It’s their way of declaring, “Off we go into this subject!” The problem is that other people, especially snobs like me, don’t think they’re being clever. We just think they screwed up and have a typo as the very first word of the very first chapter in their very first book.

In the end

Sometimes new information comes to light after a book was written. Like at the end of a movie when they list all the characters and “where are they now.” The author may tack this update onto the end of his book, addressing the reader directly in the first person. That’s called an Afterword. And you write it afterward.

See how nice and tidy that is? Now you know everything.

An Afterword is like an Epilogue, except it, uh, it’s… well, really they’re alike only because they both come afterward. An Epilogue sums up the book, but it’s part of the story. It’s a bookend to the Prologue, or Introduction. Epilogue has a Greek root meaning “conclusion.” I didn’t know that until just this minute when I looked it up.

So Foreword ⇒ Afterword. Introduction ⇒ Conclusion. Prologue ⇒ Epilogue. Now go forth and write your own.

 

Mean what you say

Mean what you say

Flat Earth Society all around the globe

I’d love to think the Flat Earth Society has a great sense of humor. More likely, they have more interest in being provocative than in being correct. And they don’t read their own posts much, or the one above might not have hung around as long as it did.

Now, if you want to argue with me that they are serious, science-based philosophers, I offer you this:

Elon Musk responds to Flat Earth Society

[ sigh ]