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Font Primer

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Saved by PBworks
on January 31, 2008 at 12:38:47 am

Font? Character Set? Huh? 


Terminology (these definitions apply to your computing environment):


  • A font can be defined as "A design for a set of characters." A font is the combination of typeface and other qualities, such as size, pitch, and spacing. For example, Times Roman is a typeface that defines the shape of each character. Within Times Roman, however, there are many fonts to choose from - different sizes, italic, bold, and so on. The term font is usually used (incorrectly) as a synonym for typeface. (reference) Technically, a typeface is a set of fonts that match in appearance, where each font is a different version. For example, the vast majority of fonts today come with Regular (Roman), Italic, Bold, and Bold-Italic. Thus "Times - Roman" is one font of the Times typeface. Serious professional typefaces (translation: Expensive commercial typefaces) come with more than just the four standard versions, such as Semi-Bold, Heavy, Black, and so on. Unless you're typesetting a book for publication you don't need these capabilities. For ordinary linguistics work any font that comes with the four basic versions will do.



    There are various classifications for fonts. Most typefaces that you have been using are serif faces. A serif typeface has little tails and curlicues at the ends of the characters (the serifs). In contrast, a sans-serif face is very plain. Times is an example of a serif typeface. Arial is an example of a sans-serif typeface. Traditionally serif fonts are better for body text, and sans-serif for headers and titles. Studies have demonstrated that humans can read serif faces faster. There is something about the little serifs that make it easier for the eyes to distinguish letters. And having said that, another general rule of good typesetting is NEVER USE ALL CAPS (all uppercase). The irregular up and down appearance of lowercase makes it easier for the eye to distinguish letters. Even titles and headers are better in upper- and lowercase. If you do type something in all caps, keep it short and use it sparingly. OK, you probably don't care about appearance (most people don't), but some of us do. Those who do may include some of your professors. Paying attention to the appearance of your documents says "I care about the quality of my work." The message is not lost on professors. But this is not a site for typesetting and design so we'll shut up about that now.


    Computer typefaces are coded with flags inside the font. One of these flags is for whether it is Regular, Italic, Bold, or Bold-Italic. When you install a font your operating system reads the font file and automatically sets it up so all that will appear in your word processor is the name of the typeface. Then, when you italicize or bold a selection of text the word processor automatically knows that it needs to switch to the Italic, Bold or Bold-Italic font for that selection of text. Pretty clever, eh? Having said that, there are ways that some software mess up the system. What if you have a font that comes in only Regular and Italic - no Bold or Bold-Italic (e.g., Gentium from Summer Institute of Linguistics)? Some word processors (e.g., Word, WordPerfect) will fake Bold versions. They will appear fine on-screen, but when you print the document they may come out without the Bold. We think the Gentium font is very attractive, but prefer to recommend other typefaces that come in all standard flavors. In our experience users discover that the Bold and Bold-Italic are not appearing on the printout at midnight when the paper is due at 8:00 the next morning.



    Another flag that fonts have is for the class the font is. Fonts are classed as "body text," "symbol," "script" and several other categories. This is actually not a very useful flag for most people under most situations. In fact, it creates a problem for users of Microsoft Office. Office has an "insert symbol" capability, but it will allow you to choose only characters from fonts that are classed as symbol fonts. There are other ways to insert characters from any font into a Microsoft Office document, but some think it's kind of lame that the only thing that you can insert from "insert symbol" is a character from symbol fonts like Wingdings, Dingbats, and so on.


  • A character set can be defined as "The entire complement of alphanumeric and other symbols contained in a given font." (reference).


    Another way to look at it is that the typeface you choose determines what specific characters look like, e.g., the design, the version (Regular, Bold, etc), but the character set you choose determines what characters are available to you. While most character sets have the letters and numbers we are used to, some include those funny IPA characters we want to make, and some do not - and some character sets only include a subset of the whole IPA character set, so you'll want to be careful about what character set you use!



    Here are some common character sets, along with their limitations and uses:


    LATIN - Pretty much the characters you see on the keyboard in countries that speak Indo-European languages. Note that Latin includes characters with diacritics that are used in French, German, etc., even though those are not standard on the keyboard in all places where Indo-European langages are spoken.

    LATIN-1 SUPPLEMENT - Includes characters for additional Indo-European languages beyond Germanic and Romance languages.

    LATIN EXTENDED - A and B - Even more characters for Indo-European languages, including some that we think of as IPA.

    IPA EXTENSIONS - These are your basic IPA set, but includes only those IPA characters beyond the characters already included in the above character sets.

    SPACING MODIFIER LETTERS - A lot of characters that we use occasionally in IPA. Characters in this set are "spacing" characters, that is, they occupy space on the line the same as regular characters (see COMBINING DIACRITICAL MARKS below for the contrast).

    COMBINING DIACRITICAL MARKS - These are diacriticals that do not occupy a space on the line. Here is where you will find characters like the diacritics for voiceless, dental, syllabic, and so on. When you type one of these characters it places the diacritic on top of the preceding character. This set is one that is essential for linguists.


    There are lots of other character sets (e.g., specific character sets for specific languages), but the above are what linguists writing in most European languages will need.




Choosing a Character Set:


This is how you do it on your computer:

(more info needed here)





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