Lowercase f and r are a headache for typesetters. Typesetters want letter spacing to be snug, no gaps. But f and r reach forward into the next letter’s space, like someone tapping your shoulder.
When r gets too close to m, the two letters start to look like a three-humped camel. An f touching an apostrophe looks like a sneeze in search of a kleenex.
Despite its wider spacing (compared to Times New Roman), Century Schoolbook still has its apostrophe snogging the f.
Arial and other clean-cut fonts avoid overcrowding by doing without ornamental blobs and swoops (serifs). Taking a close look at “waffle,” you see how pleased Arial must be with itself, not only keeping the f-crooks clear of each other but also joining the horizontals to form a double letter (ligature).
Here is a close-up on apostrophes:
Lucida has its square-head apostrophe centered perfectly, as you would expect in a font from the bit-mapped 1980s. Palatino solves spacing by redesigning the apostrophe, from a yin shape to a semi-bananoid.
Lucida and Cambria are the kitchen-faucet fonts, recognizable by the downward aim of their spout-like f’s and r’s. Square dots over the i’s date these as pixel-era designs.
Palatino and Goudy scream hand-lettered.
Palatino’s f rises thick, angles thin, then thickens again to a squared-off, forward-looking stop: thinning or thickening at turns is characteristic of a pen with an angled nib (chisel-tip).
In the Goudy f, the thinning is more fluid, suggesting a brush stroke. You can always identify Goudy by the letter i, dotted with a diamond.
Above, the Times New Roman f droops nearly on top of the r — that is TIGHT letter-spacing, valued highly in multi-columned newspapers but less so in the wide pages of books.
The older Baskerville is much like TNR, using heavy blobs in contrast with thin strokes to improve legibility. Thin strokes are much thinner in Baskerville.
The letters g and y are “below the baseline” cousins to f and r, encroaching on neighbors’ space. Why does y slant backward? Why does this kind of g have a lasso below? Short answer: these are the forms inherited from medieval manuscript tradition. The first fonts were designed for readers who were accustomed to monkish handwriting.
The Baskerville g features a curlicued oval, which is not quite closed. You could draw a thin vertical line in the clear space between the Baskerville g-bags.
Both Garamond and TNR set their serifs low on the g-head, like the bill of a cap, to avoid overlapping the y serif. Goudy, a quirky American font, has an antler-like g serif — damn the overlap, full speed ahead!
The letter o is seldom a circle. It’s a perfect circle in typewriter-born Courier but an obvious oval in Arial — a font so standardized every stroke of every letter is of uniform thickness. It is surprising then to find one of the TNR-like fonts (at right) has a circular o. Hint: the one with the droopiest a-bag.
There is a white pill shape inside the Century and Bodoni o’s. The pills are upright. Notice how the pill in TNR is tilted slightly leftward. Is it because monks were mostly right-handed? Notice also in TNR that d and b, which ought to be mirror images, are not. Though TNR’s middle name is New, there’s much of Hogwarts still in it.
You’d never finish a book if you noticed irregularities in every letter of every word. So we surf lines of type without regard to the droplets flying in every wave. No doubt the future of fonts — and language generally — will bring further simplification and modularity. Yet the smoothest surface, under magnification, always turns out to be a jungle gym of atoms, with long molecules swirling in a vortex of association and connection, toward the eye of further study and enjoyment. To that end, here is an array of examples for contemplation at your leisure.