Why Fonts Matter

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For years the default font size for an APA Style paper was 12. And not only was APA’s preferred font size 12, but also the preferred font style was Times New Roman. Well, the 7th edition of APA Style has changed such preferences, and it’s important to understand what has changed and why. 

In the 7th edition of the Publication Manual, APA says that standard sans serif or serif fonts of 10 to 12 point are acceptable. But what exactly does that mean? I conducted a non-scientific poll of my wife and fifteen-year-old son, both of whom looked blankly at me when I asked if they knew the difference between a serif and sans serif font. My son, surly by nature, even added, “What’s wrong with you?”

This kind of reaction begs the question, what do folks really know about fonts in general? I imagine that most have seen font style options that refer to “serif or “sans serif,” but perhaps the terminology wasn’t given much thought (we’re talking about fonts, after all) or perhaps it was just that the font option “Sans Serif” was simply the name of the font and meant nothing more than the style like “Calibri” or “Arial” or “Merriweather.”

Publishers, typesetters, designers, and typophiles (yes, people who love typography–the look and appearance of the printed word!) have been debating the merits of serif vs sans serif fonts for a very long time. Interestingly enough, these same parties have also been involved in the debate of one space or two after a period. 

So what’s the difference between a serif and sans serif style font? Serif typeface has little embellishments (actually called serifs) that are decorative in nature (more on this in a moment) and appear at the ends of letters. Picture a capital T with a straight line across and another straight line down; now turn the ends of the horizontal line slightly downward and add little feet on either side of the vertical line at the bottom and you have a serif font: T. 

A sans (French for “without”) serif font, by contrast, does not have the embellishments. Picture that same capital T but with only a line across and a line down from the center and you have a sans serif capital T–that is, a capital T without any embellishments. 

As it turns out, these embellishments on serif fonts may not be decorative at all at least in terms of their origin, though I want to emphasize the phrasing “may not be decorative” because this matter, along with the origin of the word “serif” itself, is still debated. Many believe that the little embellishments used in serif font styles may actually be a product of a time when Romans carved Latin letters in stone. The letters would first be painted on the stone and then the stonemason would chisel a mark just outside the painted letter to get a footing (serifs at the bottoms of letters are sometimes referred to as feet) to carve out the letter by following the painted lines. These starting points at different junctures of a letter created notches that Guttenberg carried over to moveable type and which were eventually called serifs. 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the origin of the word “serif” back to 1841 (Guttenberg invented moveable typeface in the 15th century) and says the origin is likely of Dutch descent (schreef). Some claim the serif typeface allows one to read content more easily and quickly, but others disagree (Note: Multiple studies have been conducted for anyone interested). 

What is important, however, from an APA Style 7th edition perspective is the accessibility for all readers. In fact, a key feature now in APA Style is the degree to which inclusivity is a part of the guidelines for usage. In general, APA says that serif and sans serif fonts of 10 to 12 point are fine, and the Publication Manual makes these specific recommendations (section 2.19):

serif fonts: 12-point Times New Roman, 11-point Georgia, or normal (10-point) Computer;

sans serif fonts: 11-point Calibri, 11-point Arial, or 10-point Lucida Sans Unicode.

Other font size designations are offered for writing that appears in tables and footnotes and the like, but again what is at the core of what APA Style conveys is the need for font choices to be such that the content is accessible (i.e., readable) to everyone. While at one time a 12-point font was the norm, technology has advanced and hence the resolution of computer monitors now makes it possible for smaller font sizes for some styles to be legible. 

Perhaps the great challenge for most now is determining what font styles and accompanying sizes will be clear and distinct for all readers. How does one know for sure, right? I realize that the variety of font sizes and styles permitted creates some uncertainty, and little doubt exists that some fonts might be better for electronic use and other fonts for print. Even the APA Style Blog points out that “Research supports the use of various fonts for different contexts.” So what’s the answer? What font size and style should be used to ensure accessibility for all?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to play it safe. I’ve been using Times New Roman 12-point font for so long, I think I’ll stick to it. I wonder, though, is Times New Roman a serif or sans serif font?

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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