Archives for category: Typesetting

As LitHub tells us in a piece entitled The Punctuation Marks Loved (and Hated) by Famous Writers, “Parul Seghal once argued that style ‘is 90 percent punctuation’.” 

This image, from Punctuation in novels by Adam J. Calhoun, is certainly interesting, but I’m wondering in what its interest resides. Does it tells us anything very meaningful? Clearly there’s a stark difference. But is the difference between Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner 90% explicable by this picture? Add a bit more punctuational variety and you too can win a Nobel Prize?

I cannot get past the idea that this sort of literary analysis is a bit of a cop out. Literary critic: Are you finding reading the book and thinking about it too laborious? OK, just focus on the details and give us a study of how often the author uses the definite article as compared with the indefinite; or analyse why it is that the sixth most frequently used word in this novel is this and not that; or measure the ratio of semicolons to colons; or study how the typeface works on this shade of paper as against the creamier sheet used in the first printing.

Or maybe Ms Seghal is right, in which case I’m missing a lot. While reading a book do you really make a subtle distinction between the pause you mentally leave when encountering a comma, a semicolon, a dash, a period — full stop as we call in in Britain which does imply there should be a whopping pause at the end of each sentence? I’m not even sure I pause when we switch from one paragraph to another. Maybe we are subconsciously taking this stuff on board, but unless the punctuation becomes odd and thus intrusive, I suspect it’s got little to do with style.

The “personality” of punctuation marks must be an entirely subjective thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. In an online world, at least, I rather regard it as indicating that you think you’ve made a joke, and hope that others won’t misread you as being serious. Much material on punctuation marks and their usage may be found at Shady Characters.

I discover I have referred to Mr Calhoun’s article before. Sorry for the duplication.

Apparently grawlix is really a thing. Shady Characters has it covered. The Oxford English Dictionary disdains the word, or maybe it hadn’t been invented when the “g” section was last revised. It was apparently only in 1975 that Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, came up with the word, which is used to designate a string of characters used to take the place of a cuss-word, as in “Why the %#@* are you wasting time reading this?” But, the plot thickens, or at least is extended further: Mr Walker originally set up grawlix to mean “an il­legible scrawl in­ten­ded to sug­gest but not ac­tu­ally com­mu­nic­ate a writ­ten word” — as he was a cartoonist this was of course an option for him, whereas for say James Kelman* it wasn’t.

A large selection of proper grawlixes may be seen at the aptly named website Grawlixes. They even include some French grawlixes. I wonder if translators of comic books (and there are of course lots of translated comic books) wonder about how to deal with them. Grawlix has had to fight for its rights to worddom. Obscenicon is a competitor it seems, advanced by Ben Zimmer, but surely, on the grounds on euphony if no other, obscenicon cannot be allowed to stand. There’s a nice cartoon at Language Log though.

Grawlix is quite a satisfying word, joining as it almost does graphic with lexeme. But we can’t really expect all specialist vocabulary to make it into the big time, the measure of which is I suppose The Oxford English Dictionary. The language of knitting has been with us for centuries prior to 1975, and is something about which I know a little. When I was a boy I lived in a wool town. Galashiels was the tweed town of the Borders, while Hawick was the knitwear leader, but of course there was plenty of overlap between them. My family was involved in knitwear. One of the terms current, everyday, every hour in a knitwear mill is “narrowing”, which was, in more formal parlance, called fashioning. The OED gives just a sort of side swipe to this latter word, giving us in a quote from 1874 “Fashioning-needle, one of the needles in a knitting-machine which lift loops from some of the bearded needles and transfer them to others, in order to widen or narrow the work.” This tells you exactly what fashioning/narrowing is. Never heard the needles referred to as being “bearded”, but I see exactly what they mean by that. This narrowing process, which in a hand-knitwear** mill, is done by hand using a sort of eyed tool (this must be what they mean by a fashioning needle), is what distinguishes a well-made garment from a cheap sweater where a bolt of knitted stuff can be cut and joined up by over-sewing. This usage gives us the origin of “fully-fashioned”, a term having nothing to do with fashion and haute couture, but simply indicating that the sleeves and body of the garment were created by this narrowing process, by fashioning, taking the outer stitches on a course and lifting them off their needles and onto the neighboring needles so that the next course will contain two or more stitches fewer than the previous one. The process also took place in the manufacture of silk stockings which is where the epithet fully-fashioned really got its popularity. A bit casually the OED gives us for fully fashioned “(of a garment; originally esp. a stocking) shaped to fit closely to the body”. This is of course what the effect of fashioning will be, but it omits the essential craft business of reducing the number of stitches in a row. Of “narrow” in this sense the OED includes nary a note.


*James Kelman’s How late it was, how late must be in the running for the book with the most uses of the word “fuck”. In this it does to my recollection rather faithfully reproduce the speech patterns of the Scottish working man.† I don’t remember which printer it was, nor which book broke the barrier, but I do remember in my early years in publishing the exciting news making the rounds that a book had at long last been printed in England with the word “fuck” in it.‡ Oh, the Sixties — bliss it was in that dawn to be alive: but to be young was very heaven.

** Contrary to what you might imagine, hand knitwear is an appellation which does not require that the garment be knitted by hand, like Granny on her knitting pins. In the trade, hand-knitwear merely means that the garment was knitted on a hand-powered machine.


† I am ashamed to confess that I am frequently tut-tutted at for use of this item of Scots vocabulary, especially when my sister’s caring for her grandchildren. Sorry; when I get excited about an idea, I just get carried away. But I sez, show me a talking child who doesn’t have a perfect command of this word and its precise usage, (including the obvious “not in front of your elders and ‘betters'”) and I’ll show you a child of the Aveyron. But I do try.

I suspect we have to assume that grawlix will never make it to permanent linguistic Olympus. We hardly need the word any more, happy as we now are to print the (im)proper letters. “We” may be at ease with the notion, but social media are determined to keep us all on the straight and narrow. I occasionally get tweets which tell me the material contained in them was too “sensitive” to display. Several years ago I was on a committee with a Ms Fluck. The email system at the place I worked refused ever to accept emails from her. This is another example of AOL’s early UK Scunthorpe problem.

‡ The reason British books have to have the name of the printer printed in them is because the printer, along with the author and the publisher, can be legally liable for bad things printed in a book — such as libel, blasphemy and obscenity. Not sure if the law has changed, or that it’s just not being enforced anymore, but the printer still gets a credit line in British books. As does the typesetter — of course in the olden days printer and typesetter were synonyms, and the typesetter could in theory be sued too I guess.

Claude Garamont (c.1510-61) worked in Paris as a punchcutter during a time of rapid development in typeface design. The typeface which bears his name, Garamond, is characterized by a light elegance, and with its low x-height, a fairly compact look. His italic is less favored than his Roman, and indeed sometimes the italic cut by Robert Granjon (1513-1589 or 1590) is used in conjunction with Garamond’s Roman.* Garamond was one of the earliest type designers to insist that Italic Caps should be slanted like the lower case characters.

As an elegant, classy typeface Garamond was often favored by designers for literary topics. When first introduced it represented a shake-up in the world of type design, taking over as it did from the much heavier, German-influenced typefaces. It achieved lots of imitators, among them Caslon which ended up being used for the Declaration of Independence. Bear in mind that back then copying a typeface wasn’t as straightforward as it is today. You had to get down to it, get out your loupe and graver, and duplicate the work of the original punchcutter in metal. No surprise that your version might differ a little from Mr Garamont’s original. Some would differ more than others, and would in their turn generate different family lines of faces.

In the illustration below who can wonder why they chose to emphasize that lower case g? This must be as close as we can get to perfection of g. (I have to hang my head in shame at the version of that letter provided by the face used by this blog.)

Mental Floss brings us the startling news that the D.C. Circuit Court has written to lawyers telling them not to use Garamond in their filings. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.)This anti-Garamondism appears to have nothing to do with that flurry of anti-French sentiment a few years back which saw French fries having to be renamed Freedom fries — it’s apparently all to do with size. The court claims that Garamond “appears smaller” and alleges that using it allows lawyers to exceed length limits on their briefs. Surely they could just switch to a word count limit rather than a page count.

One possible justification for the decision is the fact that Garamond doesn’t render particularly well on a computer screen. Here’s a post from Design for hackers which explains this.

The Court should perhaps be careful about the expression of its motivation. I once spent hours going through type books figuring out what the tightest setting typeface would be — and Garamond was not the winner. The typeface allowing you to cram most characters onto a page turns out to be (maybe was then) Weidemann. We did use the Weidemann in a Bible — this may not be the most elegant Bible ever printed, but it must be a contender for the fewest pages for the largest type. It might, I suppose, be argued that Garamond’s low x-height allows you to use less leading than other faces demand, thus fitting a line or two more onto any given type area.


*However Garamond’s Italic ampersand is something to behold, and should never be lost.

Fortunately this extravagant flight of fancy is preserved in Matthew Carter’s Galliard Italic. Galliard was introduced in 1978 and is the typeface used in the Library of America volumes. Carter followed Granjon in designing his Galliard, and I speculate whether this ampersand was actually Granjon’s not Garamond’s, incorporated into the design for Monotype Garamond Italic in the 1920s when so many “lost” typefaces were reintroduced to the world of printing.

I was struck, on a recent trip down the New Jersey Turnpike, by the unexpectedly good letterspacing on the electronic warning signs.

I expect the “letterspacing” isn’t really the result of a typographical designer’s involvement, but rather a technological dictate representing the minimum distance allowable between an on or an off LED “pixel”. It’s hard to find too much detail about the specs for such signs — obviously the market is not the general consumer, but I thought it was an excellent sign. It’s made by Daktronics (I think — you can’t really slow down in the middle if I95 to check this sort of detail). The sign appears to say Daktronics in the middle — it’s that tiny white line below WRECK, but I did manage to notice that it also says Vanguard at the bottom right. I initially read Daktronics as Datatronics, but they seem to be involved in all things magnetic. Vanguard is apparently the controller. Helpfully the Daktronics website tells us, anent Vanguard, that “The VFC– 3000 is a state-of-the-art VMS controller”, but they do not reveal what VFC or VMS mean. I don’t think we can complain: if you need a VFC or VMS controller I suppose you know what they are: all industries use their own jargon just as we in book manufacturing do. No doubt the New Jersey Highways Department would be mystified by picas or sigs.

You’ve got to admire the effortless use of two type sizes, and of course New Jersey’s decision to address us in verse.*

On a related topic here’s video about the typefaces chosen for road signs: the fixed ones only. Doubtless the digital LED signs introduce yet more variation into the picture. I have had a go at letterspacing of road signs before.

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* New Jersey did have a poet laureate from 2000 to 2003, but as it was a life-time appointment the legislature found itself in a bind when LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the second incumbent, created a controversy-storm with the public reading his poem “Somebody Blew Up America”. This reaction to the 9/11 attacks infuriated many New Jerseans by implying that Israel was involved in the bombing, and that Jewish workers had been warned to stay away from work that day. Baraka refused to resign. The Gordian solution: the position was cancelled.

Sounds like a bit of a joke but here you can hear this new typeface earnestly introduced by a spokesperson from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Apparently the idea is that if you have to struggle to get the information, you’ll be able to remember it better. This idea, which is dressed up with the scientific-sounding name “desirable difficulty”, may or may not be nonsense. Make the typeface hard to read, and the reader will work harder at understanding it. This rather calls into question efforts to design text pages with a typeface which makes it easier for dyslexics to cope. If there’s any basis to this desirable difficulty study plan wouldn’t it be desirable to instal 40 watt bulbs in all libraries, and few of them at that? Or set textbooks in 5 point type and print them in pale grey ink? It might also be considered wise to make students do their homework in noisy pubs: not that any of them would ever have thought of that for themselves. Or maybe to forbid them to do their homework at all, or even to prevent them from attending class. “We’re not going to tell you what it is you need to know, but the test’s next week.”

The concept of desirable difficulty was apparently invented in 1994 by Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist. It is good to know that he is also the discoverer of the “directed forgetting paradigm” — the full service: can’t get that Sans Forgetica text out of your mind, here comes directed forgetting.

Sans Forgetica makes you think of a Costa Brava seaside resort with one or two too many margaritas on board — maybe the beach is where we should all be going to study.

Notice of this story comes via The Passive Voice, where there are further links to pieces in Wired and in Science Daily. The Science Daily article indicates that the jury is actually still out on whether this desirable difficulty does or does not increase learning.

In my schooldays the preferred method was not so much desirable difficulty (Latin has that inherently anyway) rather it was “desirable fear” — the technique of beating knowledge into the brain via the backside. It never worked either.

Lewis Mitchell died earlier this year. He retired from M&H Type (part of the Arion Press set up in the Presidio, San Francisco) in 2014, the year before I visited the Press.

Type casting is the business end of hot metal typesetting: it’s the part where a squirt of molten metal is injected into a mould to create a sort, a piece of type. Mr Mitchell ran the machines that did this at the M&H foundry for many years.

Here Mr Mitchell walks you through the process in a City Exposed video:

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As a reminder: there are three aspects of hot metal typesetting: keyboarding, creating the type, and arranging the type in the proper order. With hand setting you get lots of little bits of type which someone else has cast for you, and then select in the correct order the letters called for by the copy. Mechanization of hot metal typesetting took two broadly different directions. Monotype chose to keyboard the entire work onto a roll of punched tape, and then rerun it though a casting/setting machine which would output the entire job in individual characters arranged in lines of predetermined length. Linotype integrated things a bit more having the keyboard operator sit at the same machine that cast the letters into lines of characters, not individual letters. You could make a Monotype caster output all the same character, as no doubt Mr Mitchell often did at M&H as part of their foundry business supplying type fonts to other printer customers.

Although they use a “western” QWERTY keyboard for their computers there are people in-putting Chinese characters who are actually able to type much faster than those for whom the keyboard was designed. This represents an incredible turnaround. When computers first arrived in China they appeared to present an overwhelming challenge to the very existence of Chinese script. No way could you get 70,000 characters onto a keyboard with space for about 70. Clearly getting the efficiencies offered by computers would involve adopting an alphabet, wouldn’t it?

To avoid this loss of heritage, the key turned out to be to “spell Chinese characters, not by sound, but by shape”. Professor Wang Yongmin broke the structure of Chinese characters down into 125 elements. Think of early mobile phones with numbers-only keypads on which you could access letters by hitting each number key once, twice, thrice and selecting the letter you wanted when it was displayed — using this technique for all the keys on the QWERTY keyboard Professor Wang managed to create a working computer QWERTY keyboard for his 125 Chinese character elements: select the first element you need for the character you require, then move on to the second element and so on. He demo-ed his keyboard at the UN in 1984, to general incredulity.

One consequence of this method is that different people can use different keys to carry different information based upon their speciality. Chinese QWERTY keyboards, many of which don’t even have any symbols on them, can be and are programmed in a variety of different layouts. Predictive text and auto completion arrived on Chinese computers before we got them — when you type a text message or do a Google search, you get these prompts suggesting to you what word the computer thinks you’re trying to type, and even the next word which you’ll come up with. A bit annoying perhaps, like the related Auto-correct “service”, but an efficient use of artificial intelligence. They were already doing this in China in the 1980s: key in a bit of a character shape, and the machine will suggest how you might want to complete it. Select the correct suggested target and Bob’s your uncle.

By the 1990s the Chinese government had decreed a move to Pinyin transliteration of Chinese, and many computer keyboards now work using Pinyin. However lots of people are still using the Chinese character keyboard — which is more universal than the Pinyin one. Pinyin which is a transliteration of sounds, will look different in different dialects. These dialects/languages use the same script system but pronounce the characters differently, so output from a keyboard with character generation will look the same all across the country, where Pinyin-generated text may be regionally incomprehensible. Another of script input’s big advantages turns out, paradoxically, to be speed. Using the multiple-elements-per-key technology allied to autocompletion and predictive suggestion has resulted in a typist being able to “type” 244 characters/words per minute at a 2016 input contest in Beijing. An extraordinary typist in English can get to 100wpm.

National Public Radio’s Radiolab program tells the story at The Wubi Effect. You can listen to the broadcast there, or, via a tab, go to a transcript of the program.

Do we have to make some allowance in such typing speed trials for the fact that many Chinese words are represented by a single character, whereas the average length of an English word is 4.7 characters? Some maybe, but probably not all that much since the characters are of course the problem: they’re rather complex, and probably more complex than that average 4.7 letter long word.

I wonder if speed is sufficiently important for us to try to emulate the Chinese by coming up with a more efficient method of keyboard entry. We know that when we read rapidly we are tending to recognize word-shapes rather than the individual letters which make up the word. Just because we have an alphabet doesn’t have to mean that the alphabet is the best way to reach any reading or writing destination, does it? But do we need to tread carefully? If you just use predictive text you might go fast, but would you be typing what you wanted or what the cloud thought you should want to say?

See also Setting Chinese, and Chinese typewriter.

The typeface Futura was designed by Paul Renner (1878-1956) at the instigation of Jakob Hegner, a publisher and printer who was looking for “the typeface of our time” to counterbalance the old Fraktur types hitherto prevalent in Germany. The fact that Renner was a painter rather than a type designer was part of his appeal to Hegner. The typeface was designed in 1924-26 and issued by the Bauer Typefoundry. Renner was particularly pleased with the lower case alphabet, but Simon Loxley tells us in Type is Beautiful (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2016) that modern opinion holds the upper case series in greater regard. The early ad shown above illustrates both.

You are certainly familiar with Futura. According to Fast Company it is the most imitated typeface. You have to remember that in hot metal typesetting days you couldn’t just copy a typeface even if you had permission: you had to make your own matrices in order to cast the hot metal to this design. (It was sometimes possible to negotiate a price to buy mats from the licensing foundry.) Even with the best will in the world it isn’t surprising that variants crept in right from the outset when matrices were being recut. Some foundries, in order to avoid licensing fees, went the whole hog and made their own intentional tiny alterations, and within ten years of its introduction a Futura derivative (often without any reference to that name) appeared in the catalog of every American type foundry.

Here is the cover of Bauer’s 1930 type specimen telling you it was available in Three-quarter-bold, Oblique, Light, Semi-bold, Bold Condensed, and Black.

Germany took the avant garde lead in the arts after its defeat in World War I: think of Bauhaus, modernist movies and so on. World War II resulted in a bit of “backtracking” in this as in many other regards. Here’s a video, forwarded by David Crotty of The Scholarly Kitchen about this.

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We are so used to clip art nowadays that we still call it that even though there’s no longer any need to get out your scissors and clip anything at all. You just copy and paste clip art on your computer now. Clip art itself was anyway just part of an interim phase in print reproduction when people could get a little print job done on an offset press at their corner printshop. Before that there was an extra step in the process of reproducing a little picture.

With letterpress everything has to print from a raised surface, usually metal but also potentially wood, some synthetic substances and even rubber — think of that John Bull printing kit you had as a child or the date stamper in the office. Or notice next time you step in a puddle . . . the next step you take on the dry street will leave a letterpress impression: a rather evanescent one it’s true — for a more lasting impression stir up some mud while you’re in the puddle.

So, when almost everything had to be printed by letterpress, you needed to have access to a raised reversed image to receive the ink and transfer it to the paper. In order to be able to print a little picture you had to go to an engraver and create a block* (called a cut in USA). To get a block engraved cost money, so unless it was totally specific to a particular print job which was never going to reprint, you would carefully wrap each one in paper, label it carefully, ideally with a pull (proof) of the engraving on the outside, and put it into storage in case you ever needed something like that again.

Here’s a piece showing part of one printer’s collection. It is shown in two separate photos, though it is just one 12⅝” x 17¾” sheet. It was printed by The Quarto Press in Coupar Angus in Scotland. You can enlarge the pictures a bit by clicking on them.

I suspect that the main sheet is actually a reprint by offset from an earlier version which was done by letterpress from the original blocks. At the bottom of the main sheet you can see the claim that it was printed in an edition of 75 copies on a Vandercook press by John B. Easson at The Quarto Press in Feltham, quite a long way from Coupar Angus. At the top we are informed to job was done in October 1998. Their website tells us that Mr Easson returned his press from Middlesex to Scotland in 2004.

Behind the main sheet in the cellophane envelope holding it is this insert telling us about the job. Their first line is a little misleading, as it describes the original piece, not the version the purchaser is holding. The 75 copies of the original were apparently mostly supplied to The British Printing History Society,  so in order to be selling copies nowadays in Coupar Angus, Quarto (not the publisher of that name of course) would have had to have reprinted the piece. And I bet they did this by photographing the original piece and printing it by offset lithography.

Some of these ornaments are a bit odd: those aggressive policemen near the top are a bit worrying, though the ballroom dancers to their right seem to be quite unconcerned as do the three kids hiding among the flowers between them. The kid in the middle does appear to be toting a gun and this may be what’s upsetting the cops. And what are those teddy bears up to? The rugby players in the lower portion are rather good, as is the cow being milked with the real business tastefully masked by a milk bottle. And you’ve got to love the pig. Hard to imagine circumstances demanding the reuse of many of these: still some printer had paid for them and thought there might be another use for these each of these blocks, even if some may never have been unwrapped again.

The sheet draws the distinction between borders and ornaments. This seems relatively straightforward to my mind: a border would be available as a font for output by your typesetting machine along with the text, whereas an ornament would have to be created separately from artwork sent to the engraver, and integrated into the typeset page in the composing room. But Mr Easson is the printer and knows better than me.

I have discussed the flag blocks at the bottom right hand corner in a previous post.


* The note at the top tells us that some of these type ornaments precede photo-engraving which is what is shown in the second of these videos. Die sinker describes the process of engraving a block by hand, though the photo-engraving video does show a lot of hand correction work.

A font for “these uncertain times” has been developed by The Third Street Attention Agency. You can download it here at their descriptive justification page. (Link thanks to David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.)

The font is a sort of fractured version of Times New Roman, and rejoices in admirable social distancing in its letter spacing. It includes only two punctuation marks, the question and exclamation marks — which somehow seems especially appropriate in these uncertain times when anxious questioning and raucous assertion have become our main modes of public debate! Despite this brave claim they appear to have allowed themselves to borrow a period for this example sentence.

This video, posted last week by David Crotty, takes us through these sympathetic adverts with which we are now being bombarded. The phrase “these uncertain times” has become a bit of a trope in the surge in new, rely-on-us-we-are-concerned-about-you TV ads. And there are a lot of them: we have a friend whose job is legal vetting of broadcast commercials, and she reports they’ve been really busy since they began working from home.

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See also Times Roman, old and new.