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Serifed text in a dictionary of French slang.

In traditional printing serifed fonts are used for body text because they are considered easier to read than sans-serif fonts for this purpose.[1] For decades, scholars in the field of graphic design have debated whether serifs on letterforms can affect legibility, and whether serif typefaces are better than sans serif ones for certain purposes. Some scholars assert that serifs help to move the reader’s eye from one letter to the next [2] and make the letters in a typeface more distinct from each other. [3] Others believe that sans serif typefaces are equally, or even more, legible since serifs are commonly thought to be for decorative purposes. Therefore, they would not appear to have a major effect on legibility, or could even hinder the reader’s ability to identify a letter. [4]This debate applies not only to text on paper, but also to online text. In this situation, sans serif typefaces are generally thought to be more legible, possibly due to the low resolution of computer screens. [5]

Typographers and scientists have conducted studies to find out if there is any truth to either side of this argument. Methods used to test legibility on paper and on screen include Rapid Serial Visual Presentation reading, reading speeds, eye movement behavior, and size thresholds, which essentially measures the minimum size at which a word or letter can be recognized. [6] [7] [8]

These studies found only slight differences in legibility between serif and sans serif typefaces. In a study of type on a computer screen, sans serif typefaces performed better by only a small amount. [9] This could be due to the fact that computer screens are generally lower resolution and could have a more difficult time reproducing the fine details that serif typefaces contain. [10] Hinting information, anti-aliasing, and subpixel rendering technologies have partially mitigated the legibility problem of serif fonts on screen. But the basic constraint of screen resolution — typically 100 pixels per inch or less — and small font sizes continues to limit their readability on screen.

In another study, serif typefaces were found to be more legible to a small degree. This could be due to that fact that serifs require more spacing between letters and increased letter-spacing can contribute to legibility. [11] Familiarity with serif typefaces could also be a factor. The typeface Times New Roman performed well in the onscreen legibility study, perhaps because it is a typeface used so frequently in North American culture that people are used to reading it. [12] Similarly, in numerous European countries where sans serif typefaces are very common, readers are able to read text written in these typefaces at the same pace as North Americans read serif typefaces. [13] Also, studies with child participants have found no difference in their ability to read either style of typeface.[14] [15]

Despite the fact that many studies have found no significant difference in legibility between serif and sans serif typefaces, the two different styles of type still seem to be used for separate purposes, and these uses are justified in various ways. Serif typefaces such as Times New Roman and Baskerville are still most commonly used for lengthy text printed in books, newspapers and magazines.[16]They are thought to ease strain on the eyes while reading, as well as make reading extensive text for long stretches of time easier. [17] On the other hand, sans serif typefaces such as Helvetica and Verdana are more often used for headlines, headings, and shorter pieces of text, as well as for websites. [18] At times, sans serif typefaces have also been used to highlight words because they are blacker than serif typefaces. [19]

The decision to use a serif over a sans serif typeface, or vice versa, is also made based on the character and connotations of each style of type. Serif typefaces tend to have a more serious and proper look to them, so a designer will often chose one of these typefaces if the message or intended audience of the text dictates this look. [20] Sans serif typefaces have a more contemporary and informal feel, so when a designer wants to achieve this look he or she will usually opt for this style of typeface. [21] Also, while serif fonts have more of a distinct character to them, sans serif fonts are more neutral, which is why they are more often used in branding and identity. [22]

As serifs originated in inscription they are generally not used in handwriting. A common exception is the printed capital I, where the addition of serifs distinguishes the character from lowercase L. Printed capital Js, and the numeral 1 are also often handwritten with serifs.


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers and Editors, (Springfield, 1998) p. 329
  2. ^ An Exact Science
  3. ^ Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable
  4. ^ Serifs and Font Legibility
  5. ^ Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable
  6. ^ Serifs and Font Legibility
  7. ^ Keeping Your Readers’ Eyes on the Screen: An Eye-Tracking Study Comparing Sans Serif and Serif Typefaces
  8. ^ Comparing Typefaces for Airport signs
  9. ^ Keeping Your Readers’ Eyes on the Screen: An Eye-Tracking Study Comparing Sans Serif and Serif Typefaces
  10. ^ Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable
  11. ^ Serifs and Font Legibility
  12. ^ Keeping Your Readers’ Eyes on the Screen: An Eye-Tracking Study Comparing Sans Serif and Serif Typefaces
  13. ^ Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable
  14. ^ Literature Review Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces?
  15. ^ A Comparison of Two Computer Fonts: Serif versus Ornate Sans Serif [1]
  16. ^ Ibid.
  17. ^ 10 Common Typography Mistakes
  18. ^ The Principles of Beautiful Web Design, (2007) p. 113
  19. ^ Sans Serif
  20. ^ Body Copy Type
  21. ^ Body Copy Type
  22. ^ Sans Serif
  • Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.0), 2004, Hartley & Marks, Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Father Edward Catich, The Origin of the Serif: Brush writing and Roman letters, 1991, Hartley & Marks, Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, 2004, Princeton Architectural Press, New York
  • James Mosley, The Nymph and the Grot: the revival of the sanserif letter, 1999, London: Friends of the St Bride Printing Library
  • Arditi, Aries and Cho, Jianna. “Serifs and Font Legibility”. Vision Research. 44.23. Nov. 2005: 2926-2933. Accessed 8 Feb. 2010.
  • Hart, Geoffrey, J. S. “Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable.” Intercom. 56.2 Feb. 2009: 48-49. Accessed 8 Feb. 2010.
  • Josephson, Sheree. “Keeping Your Readers’ Eyes on the Screen: An Eye-Tracking Study Comparing Sans Serif and Serif Typefaces.” Visual Communication Quarterly. 15.5 Mar. 2008: 67-79. Accessed 8 Feb. 2010.
  • Lupton, Ellen. “An Exact Science”. Print. 57.5 Sept./Oct. 2003: 22. Accessed 8 Feb. 2010.
  • Waller, Robert. “Comparing Typefaces for Airport signs.” Information Design Journal. 15.1 (2007): 1-15. Accessed 8 Feb. 2010.