Word Processing

This article defines the term typeface and explains the difference between serif and sans serif typefaces and proportionately and non- proportionately spaced typefaces. It also explains how differences in size, weight, and style account for different fonts of the same typeface.

Typeface Concepts

A typeface is a complete set of letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and special characters all of the same basic design. All characters of the same typeface share a common style of shape and appearance. Examples of typefaces include Arial and Times Roman.

Ornate typefaces are referred to as design, or display typefaces. Examples would be Broadway, Lucida Handwriting, and Showcard Gothic. These typefaces are designed to attract attention, or for special purposes. They are not appropriate for use in academic papers, correspondence, or large blocks of text in general. They were designed for things like invitations, notices, posters, and advertising.

Serif and Sans Serif Typefaces

All typeface designs fall into one of two categories: serif or sans serif.

Serif Typefaces

Serif typeface have small embellishment strokes on the tops or bottoms of letters. Times, or Times Roman, and Garamond are examples of serif typefaces. Serif typefaces are more decorative and have a warmer feeling to them. In larger blocks of text, serif typefaces are said to be more easily read and they are used for body text in most newspapers and the majority of books.

Sans Serif Typefaces

Sans is Latin for "without". The strokes used in Sans Serif characters are unadorned by serifs and look more austere. Arial, Calibri, and Universal are common examples of sans serif typefaces. Sans serif typefaces are most frequently used for titles and headings, and for body text in technical documents.

Note: From time to time Microsoft changes Word's default typefaces. Currently, the defaults are Calibri (sans serif) for body text, and Cambria (serif) for headings. This is exactly opposite to the widely held convention of using serif for body text and san serif for headings and titles. Changing the default typefaces used by MS-Word is very easy to do. See Formatting with Styles.


Another distinguishing characteristic of typeface is the way they are spaced. Every typeface uses one or the other of the two ways of spacing characters: proportional or non-proportional. Non-proportional is also referred to as mono-spaced

Non-proportional Spacing

This paragraph's typeface is non-proportionately spaced. Regardless of how wide they are, all characters receive an equal amount of horizontal space. Non-proportional typeface is easily identified by a greater amount of white space surrounding narrow characters ("i", "j", "t", etc) than wide characters. Old manual typewriters made exclusive use of non-proportionately spaced typeface.

Proportional Spacing

The Times Roman typeface in this paragraph is an example of proportional spacing. Proportional spacing means that the horizontal space given to a character is dependent upon (proportional to) its width. So, the character "i", being quite narrow, receives far less horizontal space than the wider "w", for example. Proportional spacing can be identified by the appearance of letters like "i", "j", and "l" being "squeezed" between adjacent characters. Since the advent of graphical operating systems, computer technology uses proportional typeface nearly exclusively.

Note: Proportional text is more compact. Although it has 566 characters and spaces compared to only 386 for the non-proportional paragraph, the proportional paragraph above is only slightly longer.


Although the terms typeface and font are frequently used interchangeably, they actually refer to different things. While a typeface is a set of characters all of a similar design, a font is a variation of a typeface. The same typeface is used everywhere in this paragraph, but three different fonts of it appear: regular, bold, and underlined.

When a typeface's characters are varied in size, style, or weight, it creates a different font.

Consider the following examples:

  • Times Roman, 12 points, upright
  • Times Roman, 16 points, upright
  • Times Roman, 12 points, upright, bold
  • Times Roman, 12 points, upright, underlined
  • Times Roman, 16 points, upright, italics

Each example is a different font of the same typeface.


How we measure the size of characters depends upon which spacing method is used by their typeface.

The measure of size for proportional typeface is the height of its characters in points. A point is a printer's measurement equal to approximately 1/72 of an inch. Average size in documents, books, and newspapers is 12 points. A one inch high headline would be about 72 points.

On the other hand, non-proportional characters all take up the same amount of horizontal space, so we measure them by Characters-Per-Inch, or CPI. Characters which are 10 CPI all take exactly 1/10 of an inch horizontally. Ten CPI and 12 points are roughly equivalent, while a 15 or 16 CPI font is condensed.


Style refers to whether the characters are regular, italic (also known as oblique), underlined, or rendered using special effects, such as shadowed.


Weight refers to the thickness of characters -- light, regular, or bold.


When a different color is selected for text, a new font is used.

Clowns Pants and Other Typographical Transgressions

When over-used, bold, italics, and underlined fonts lose their impact. USING ALL CAPS SHOULD BE AVOIDED except in special cases of commanding attention and providing a warning! Small caps are a more stylish variation of all caps.

Clowns pants is the over-use of graphics and typef a c e and font variety.

Apart from ransom notes and posters, clowns pants is to be avoided. A general rule of thumb is:

  • Use no more than two typefaces and three fonts per page

Clear formatting

All that clowns pants formatting just now made me think of the Clear Formatting command in Word.

If you use Word enough, and especially if you do a lot of direct formatting, you'll sometimes run up against Word's stubborn refusal to apply your formatting changes. This can happen when Word has "too much information" about formatting, and gets confused.

If you use styles you probably won't experience this as often.

But when this situation does arrive, it's often best not to try and reverse layers of formatting, but instead, remove them entirely and begin anew.

Note that just selecting text and applying the Normal style may not correct the problem because it's likely that Word will still keep some of the direct formatting you applied.

So instead, use the Clear Formatting button (Home tab> Font group). Clear Formatting removes all direct formatting from selected text and then re-applies the Normal style. Clean start, fresh slate.

The keyboard shortcut for Clear Formatting is Ctrl-Spacebar.

Bruce Miller, 2011, 2014

Index to MS-Word articles

Index to all articles