Tag Archives: ligatures

Of Ligatures and Precocious Kids

I was trying to figure out when my interest in typography first reared its wicked head. My earliest recollection is of junior high school. I noticed something interesting in on of my literature textbooks, and I was perplexed. I noticed that when two lowercase F’s appeared next to each other in a word (as they do in “offer”) the first F appeared shorter than the second. The next day, I asked my teacher why the F’s were different. Exasperated, she looked at me like I was insane for even noticing something as innocuous as that and admitted that she had no idea with a huge sigh. Yes, I have always been a dork.

I know now that what I observed was a ligature.

Ligatures are typographic refinement that fuses two or more letters together to create a single glyph. There are many common ligatures: ff, fi, ffi, Th are among the most common.

Ligature Examples

Here are some common examples of two or more characters fusing to form a ligature. The typeface used is Adobe Garamond Pro.

Ligatures are used to avoid collisions that would otherwise occur between two letters. For example the terminal of the lowercase F (or hook at the top of the lowercase F) often collides with the dot of the lowercase I, but the use of the ligature omits the dot in the I and avoids the unsightly collision.

Such page layout applications as Adobe InDesign and Quark XPress will change character combinations to ligatures on the fly depending on your style settings.  Word processing applications like Adobe FrameMaker do not generally support ligatures. Microsoft Word 2008 for Mac supports ligatures, and Word 2010 for Windows will support ligatures.

While using ligatures can easily add that sophistication and professionalism your type so desperately needs, they are not always necessary or useful. For example some of the ligatures in the Futura typeface are bizarre looking and distracting.

You really should use ligatures only if characters in your body type are colliding. The characters in most sans serif typefaces, like Furtura, will never collide unless they are kerned too tightly (reduced letter spacing). By the same token, ligatures in serif typefaces with loose kerning (increased letter spacing)may appear tight when compared to the loose text around them. Heading text or display type, likewise, often look strange with ligatures.

Here’s the rule of thumb when it comes to ligatures: set all other formatting of your text before enabling ligatures. If you see characters colliding, enable your ligatures and watch those characters fuse.