Bits and Pieces of Type

Basic typeface anatomy

Anatomy of type
Anatomy of type. Some letters stay between the imaginary lines and others go up or down a little or a lot. Image © Jacci Howard Bear
Typeface anatomy or letter anatomy refers to the individual segments and features of a particular character. Certain pieces are common to most characters and some are unique to only one or two characters in a typeface.
Learning about serifs, strokes, counters, and other bits and pieces that make up the letters in a typeface is not something of interest only to font fanatics and type designers. The shape and size of certain elements are generally consistent throughout any given typeface and can help you identify and categorize typefaces.

It's not absolutely necessary for most font users to know the precise difference between a spur and a beak or a tail and a leg, but it is fun and can make you feel and sound smart.

Instead of resorting to terms such as "that little round thingamagig at the top of the f" or "the curvy connector bit in the middle of the funny-looking g" you can use real terms like ball terminal or the link in a double-storey g. Take a look at three broad terms with which most designers should have at least a nodding aquaintence and several related elements that help define a typeface.


  1. Think about the strokes you make with a pen when printing letters and you'll have an idea what the broad meaning of stroke is for a font.

    Most letterforms are made up of several specific types of strokes:

    • Stems - In a way, it's like a flower stem.
    • Extenders - Reach for the sky or touch your toes.
    • Arms - If a letter were a person, these would be like arms.
    • Crossbars - Think of them as connecting strokes.
    • Cross Strokes - Cross your t's.
    • Tail - A few letters love to wag their tails.
    • Leg - Most letters don't have one to stand on.
    • Bowls - Not for soup or cereal, they hold nothing.


  1. This part of a letter is what's inside the bowl. It's white space or negative space, not a stroke at all.

    There are other more specific terms for some of the negative space that defines a letterform:

    • Eye - I spy a special counter.
    • Aperture - This space could escape.


  2. Serifs
    Probably the most familiar characteristic of type, serifs come in three basic shapes and fall into one of two groups.

    Similar to serifs, each of these letterparts may be understated or may form a distinctive, readily identifiable element of a typeface:

    • Ears - Gee, why can't I hear you?
    • Spurs - Not just for cowboys.
    • Beaks - No birds here.
    • Chins - Some letters have a strong one.