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« Without serifs: a sans by any other name

Recently, a question by Cynthia Batty on the ATypI mailing list led me to do a quick survey on what we call typefaces without serifs. Click here to take survey.

Here are the results of my little survey. There have been over 300 responses. It’s certainly not a random sample, mostly people deeply involved with typography in some way. Interestingly, the results didn’t really vary by expertise level. (The order of the possible answers was randomly varied so as not to influence the answers, btw.)

The most common comments under “other” were that it should be “sans serif” as a noun and “sans-​​serif” as an adjective (for example, “a sans-​​serif typeface”). Certainly if the noun form is “sans serif” then standard English usage would dictate that the compound adjective would be hyphenated.

Another common response was that “sans” is an acceptable informal shorthand for “sans serif.”

Finally, it seems that despite a bit of solid support in the UK for “sanserif,” that spelling is neither particularly widely used nor accepted. The Oxford English Dictionary accepts it and dates it back to 1830, and the Oxford University Press, Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style) and eminent professors James Mosley and Michael Twyman all use it, as does typographer and typography author Robin Kinross. I must confess to not much liking “sanserif” myself.

[Edited to correct spelling of "Mosley" and add a little more detail on "sanserif," and again to add Bringhurst the to list of "sanserif" supporters.]

7 commentsto “Without serifs: a sans by any other name”

  • August 1, 2011
    Akos Polgardi wrote

    Thanks for publishing the results. Note that Bringhurst also uses ‘sanserif’. Which alternative versions were indicated as ‘other’?

    [I'll add Bringhurst to the list, thanks for pointing that out. "Other" was a mix of: (1) people saying either "sans" by itself; (2) people saying "sans serif" as a noun and "sans-​​serif" as a compound adjective; (3) explaining something about picking one of the other three options given. — T]

  • August 1, 2011
    Dan Gayle wrote

    I’d be willing to bet that anyone who is a web designer or involved in editing CSS would lean heavily on sans-​​serif, since that’s how it is specified by the W3C specs.

    I’ve noticed a distinct difference in the pronunciation, also. Sans as in hands, and sans as in yawn.

  • August 1, 2011
    Christopher Burd wrote

    And here, all these years I thought they were invented by a French saint: St Seraph.

  • August 4, 2011
    Richard Fink wrote

    What Dan Gayle wrote is what instantly occurred to me.
    The spelling has been imposed from on high – sans-​​serif.

    However, the meaning is perfectly clear in every variation so different strokes for different folks is fine with me.

    An interesting little inquiry.

  • September 7, 2011
    Claudio Piccinini wrote

    Hi Thomas,
    since I am Italian I tell you which term I use, which is “lineari”. It’s the one which makes most sense, since it actually describes an identifying feature of the alphabets.

    I don’t like a “negative” terminology. “sans serif” because they do not have serifs? But this is not a positive qualification, it’s like using the generic term “laity” as opposed to “clergy” to address people belonging to the Church but without a specific presbiteral ordination.

    Lineari” is a common term, or at least it used to be, in Italy. Novarese and Butti used it, and in English it should sound something like “linears” (French is “Lineales”, I think).

    Hope you will proceed with Columbus.
    Best,
    Claudio

  • November 21, 2011
    Andrew Dunning wrote

    It should perhaps be noted, however, that the ‘sanserif’ entry in the OED is from the second edition of 1989, and may be revised with the next update. The smaller, but newer, Oxford Dictionary of English lists it as ‘sans serif’, which would suggest that this is what they’re planning on going with.

  • March 25, 2012
    Doug Downing wrote

    I heartily agree with Claudio that the use of negative terminology is problematic.

    Regardless of how its spelled, “sans serif” invokes its opposite, making it difficult to learn and to use comfortably. I’d argue that it slows down cognition and actually wastes time, though I can’t prove it.

    It’s right up there with “anti-​​aliased”.

    (I’ve been leaning on “sans” in an effort to avoid this… Also, I recently noticed that my font management software cannot perform a quick search for “serif” as it brings up all “sans serif” fonts as well.)

    [I certainly won’t argue that “sans serif” is the ideal term, merely the standard one today. Although “sans” is simple, it is not terribly meaningful, as it just means “without.” Arguably a better term would be the Vox-​​ATypI term “Linéale” or perhaps its English equivalent, “Linear.” But if you use either of these words today to describe a typeface, most graphic designers will look at you blankly. — T]

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