Category Archives: typography

Punctuation improvement #1!

Along the line of English simplification #1! I had this idea that is of equal utility.

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One ſhilling sixpence v. One sixth

I currently work for a publisher of textbooks as a metricator, or person who converts United States customary units like ft, mi and gal to SI units like m, km and L. I promise I’ll save any comments on the two systems for later.

Making changes is done by marking up PDF files of manuscripts or previous editions using the “comment” feature in Acrobat. In cases of equations or complex typesetting, Acrobat or some application attempted to OCR the contents. In one particular case, this leads to a minor distinction, unimportant to all but the most sedulous observers or nitpickers: The difference between a shilling mark or solidus (∕) and a forward slash (/).

The shilling mark was (According to WikipediA anyway1) derived from the medial S used to indicate the number of shillings in a price that was denominated in the old pounds-shillings-pence (Lsd) system of currency used in the United Kingdom and its sometime colonies. For example, 19 guineas and six pence would be written 19l. 19ſ. 6d. and read “nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings, six pence”. Over time, the “ſ.” turned into a slash, so: 19l. 19∕. 6d. This ended up: 19l. 19∕6 or “nineteen pounds, nineteen and six”.

The solidus (I love that word) is still around in Unicode and could be used in place of the forward slash in fractions. I’ve only ever seen this in OCR’d files that had an overly zealous character palette to choose from. Unfortunately, sometimes the software would choose to use the solidus, and other times decide that the symbol on the paper was actually a slash. Minor matter since they look similar. Not so minor if you work for the publisher and keep seeing the division glyph change from one to the other in the same paragraph.

So, if you OCR documents with fractions set on a line, make sure you’ve got “1/6” (one sixth) and not “1∕6” (one shilling and sixpence of an obsolete currency system).

Uppercase medial S

I’ve got a secret thing for the now completely discarded medial s, which looks like this: ſ

Prior to the early 1800s, the lowercase letter S would be written as ſ when not at the end of the word (hence, “medial” or in-the-middle). On old colonial (United States/Canada) documents, it is common to see it in printed matter where it looks almost exactly like a lowercase F.

medialsIf you know the Greek language or alphabet, this is sort of a reversed terminal sigma in that it never appears at the end. There may be an actual connection between them, but I don’t know and am currently disdaining looking on WikipediA to find out, although I’m curious… OK back: WikipediA says there “may” be a connexion, but it’s inconclusive. See here:

If you know the German language, this is the first part of the double or “sharp” S: ß You can see how the medial S forms the “up and over” part of the letter, and then a normal S follows. This has nothing to do with the Greek letter lowercase beta: β

There has since been a somewhat-general (I gather from WikipediA) decision to have a “capital sharp S”, ẞ, however there has not, to my knowledge, been such a development for the medial S. I propose that the capital medial S be defined as having a glyph of Γ. This is the uppercase Greek alphabet gamma. Using this we have:

UNITED ΓTATES of AMERICA (first thing that came to mind after about 15 seconds of thinking)

medialsupperThis has several benefits. The glyph is almost identical in geometry to the original. The more pointed form of the Γ v. ſ accords more with the more angular form of most uppercase letters v. their lowercase forms. It is already included in almost all fontfaces so implementation is easy. However, it is taken from a foreign alphabet, so is unlikely to confuse anyone who isn’t overly literate.

I have no idea if it is going to be useful at all, but I will have it ready incase it is called for!