The class had been shown an image of the lettering on Trajan’s Column. In the course of discussion we looked at a beautiful modern inscription—also in Roman capitals—by Eric Gill.

A certain pupil, who notices everything and takes nothing for granted, and whose motto seems to be Hang on a bit, said, “What do you call those little lines at the edges of the letters?”
“Those are serifs.”
“What are they for?”


The OED defines serif as ‘Any of the cross-strokes or finishing strokes at the end of a principal stroke of a letter.’ It goes on, unusually: ‘Small end or cross-strokes were first used by ancient stonecutters to define the limits of the chiselled principal strokes of Roman letters more clearly, and were later added by pen to written texts to give weight and clarity to the ends of the strokes. However, the word serif itself (in its various forms) apparently only came into use as a technical term to describe these finishing strokes with the advent of early modern type-founding…’

The etymology of the word has been disputed, but the OED says it is probably a borrowing from a Dutch word schreef, meaning a line, stroke, or mark.

This seems to fit with the fact that some of the largest and earliest printing houses—and the nearest to England—were in the Low Countries.

All this partly answers the girl’s question. But typographers are not entirely agreed about the effect of serifs—in lower case, that is. Generally it has been accepted that serifs are needed for a large amount of text, as making for more comfortable reading: and some people have complained that long passages, or books, in a sans-serif font give them a headache.

A font with serifs also seems to have a more formal air than a font without them.

But many typographers feel that on a computer screen sans serif fonts can be read more comfortably. Eric Gill, the designer of Gill Sans, would perhaps agree; and the success of some new sans serif fonts on the web is remarkable. This post is in Verdana, designed for Microsoft by Matthew Carter and released in 1996.

It is gratifying when children notice details, and when they have the seeing eye.

Next post: Marking and correction of students’ work.

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