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I really, really, really had vowed not to post about fonts for a while. But then I saw a link to an Onion article about the 73rd Annual Fonty Awards, and just could not resist. Looks like I may have to eat my words about Helvetica.

Onion Coverage of 73rd Fonty Awards

Here’s the link. Enjoy!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, trainer and editor who may need some help with her font fixation. Suggestions can be sent to jalvey [at] wordsolutions [dot] biz.

If you are of a certain age, your first conscious exposure to fonts was probably similar to mine: an IBM Selectric typewriter that had an italic ball. Or maybe it was when you first used a Mac in college or grad school, back in the day. (Gen Y’ers might not know this, but Macs were, as Steve Jobs says, “the first computer with beautiful typography.”) Now, of course, our familiarity with fonts is mostly through Microsoft Word.

Why do fonts matter in this day and age? The same reason they’ve always mattered: readability, and emotional subtext.

Fonts profoundly affect readability in print and online, but in different ways. As anyone in need of bifocals knows, font size is important. But even more important is the font family, serif or sans serif. You know what these are, even if you’ve never consciously thought about it. Serif fonts like Times New Roman sport small decorative strokes, the non-structural details, on the ends of letter stems. For example, in the photo, the “i,” the “n” and the “t” are in various serif fonts, while the “p” and the “r” are sans serif (sans is French for “without”).

serif and sans serif examples

serif and sans serif examples

When choosing fonts for readability, you need to know whether the finished product is going to be primarily some kind of hard copy, or whether it will be viewed primarily on a screen. (We’ll get to mixed use in a moment.) If your font is difficult to read, your audience gets fed up and goes elsewhere, whether it’s to find the equivalent info or make a purchase. If your audience is stuck with you for some reason, they’ll be resentful. Not the feeling you want to generate in customers or clients.

If you’re in a print world, serif fonts are generally more readable; the added strokes help lead the eye from letter to letter. Times New Roman, Georgia, and Garamond typically are good choices for print fonts.

Sans serif fonts, on the other hand, are easier on the eye when reading from a screen. Sans serifs have a higher “x-height,” the height of the lower case x that typically governs the height of all lower case letters in a font. Larger x-heights make fonts more legible at the low resolutions found online. Also, the crisper edges of sans serifs give a higher contrast on a screen. (Ink bleeds, even on the best printers.) Tahoma is a nice, middle-of-the-road sans serif, as is Verdana. Not Comic Sans, trust me.

Fonts go in and out of fashion. That’s where the emotional subtext comes into play. Remember some of the groovy fonts used in the Seventies?  Most of them now are found only in graphic design software, unless you download and install them yourself. Times New Roman has been the leader in projecting stability for businesses for quite some time, if for no other reason than it was the default font in Microsoft Word. Many courts and professors require documents be submitted in Times New Roman.

But with Office 2007, Microsoft updated its font collection and made a new font, Calibri, the default. Calibri is a sans serif font, a nod to the prevalence of online reading. It’s more rounded than Arial or Helvetica, making it a better option for documents that might be printed out–a good option if your document will be mixed use.

A nice 2006 article on the Poynter Institute website suggests Constantia or Cambria as other alternatives for mixed use documents.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area on Feb. 23, stop by the Corcoran at 7 p.m. for a eye-opening lecture on fonts. Matthew Carter, the creator of the Verdana, Georgia, and Tahoma fonts, will be speaking.

In the meantime, you might want to give your newsletter, email, and website fonts a quick review.

Jennifer Alvey is an editor, writer and trainer with a background in both print and online media. She confesses to a slight obsession with fonts, but only changes her default font on Word once a month now. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

There are phrases that we use daily without examining them. Until someone clues us in that there might be something offensive about the phrase.

One time, a colleague told me about the phrase “in like Flynn.” I thought it meant that someone got into something–a club, school, or other kind of selective place–more easily than most. My colleague, one of those Harvard-educated lawyers, said that actually, the phrase referred to film star Errol Flynn, who certainly had quite the reputation for myriad romantic conquests. Intimate romantic conquests, if you catch my drift. (Oh, the joy of writing to appease web site blocking software.)

I was pretty horrified when she told me this. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I am a control freak about words. I want to know both the connotation and denotation of what I’m saying. Especially if there’s a judge or client or boss on the receiving end of a letter I wrote with suspect phrases in it.

It’s hard to be well read and keep current with pop culture these days. After all, you’re a busy professional. I doubt the productivity gurus would accept, “But I’m surfing to make sure I’m current on lingo, so my memos/emails/legal briefs/client letters are better.”

There’s a great website to give you a quick, well researched summary of loads of colloquial phrases: The Phrase Finder. Because the site is run by some witty Brits, it’s very heavy on British phrases. But there are plenty of phrases from across the Pond, too.

Some good ones for business and legal writers: also offers a free weekly email that details the origins of one phrase. I always learn something. If you’re a professional writer or just write a good deal of material that requires color and zing, you can also purchase an annual subscription to search the database. It’s £28.00 for a single user (about $40 at this writing), or £70.00 for a multi-user site license (about $100). For businesses that rely on words, that’s pretty economical. (And I don’t make any money if you sign up; I just think it’s a great resource.)

Happy phrase hunting!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor, and trainer with a background in law and business. She thinks getting your audience to read your website or marketing copy depends on colorful writing and solid information to back it up. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.