The A to Z of Typesetting Terminology

The A to Z of Typesetting Terminology
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DTP, graphic design and multilingual typesetting can be daunting prospects. While you don’t have to be an expert to get started and your publication on the shelves (physical or digital) it would be beneficial to have a working understanding of the terms you are likely to hear when discussing your project with industry specialists. You are likely to encounter many terms in design software and when talking to designers, printers and typesetters.

To avoid some of the confusion that may occur with international graphic design make sure you understand the whole process and the terminology that’s involved. One of my top tips for multilingual typesetting is to learn the language and history of the craft. Below I’ve listed 50 common words that we use all the time. I’ve grouped these into sub categories to make it easier to browse. I’m hoping this makes it easier for you to publish your documents in any language.

Typesetting Terminology


If you look at most typefaces you will notice all letters seem to rest or sit (much like handwriting in a lined notebook) on an invisible line, this is called the baseline.  Although some elements do extend beyond it for example, the bottom parts of letters like ‘p’ or ‘q’ the baseline is the point from which other elements of type are measured including x-height and leading.

Cap Height

The cap height of a typeface is the distance between its baseline and the top of a flat capital letter (best exemplified by H, I, X). Note this does not account for the overshoot of pointed or rounded letters. These are often slightly taller – to compensate for the visual illusion of being shorter.


Have you ever coloured in the empty spaces in letters like ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘g’ etc.? If yes, you applied colour to counters (albeit closed ones). A counter is the space enclosed (‘b’, ‘d’, ‘o’ etc.) or partially enclosed (‘c’, ‘h’, ‘s’ etc.) within a letter, glyph or figure. Pay attention to this space if you’re designing a typeface: it greatly affects legibility.

Drop Caps

The use of drop caps spans almost two thousand years. You may have spotted these elements in books, where they often embellish the first page of a chapter. A drop cap is simply the first character of the text, enlarged to span several lines of the first paragraph. The letter can keep the same font as the body, although decorative typefaces add a bit of magic when suitably used. I’m not sure about their use in digital mediums though, but that’s just me.


A glyph is a graphical unit, a specific part of a written element. Glyphs differ with the language, but largely serve the same purpose: they compose readable characters. Languages based on the Latin alphabet don’t illustrate the notion as well as, for example, Japanese does. Note the distinction between glyphs and ligatures: not all ligatures are glyphs.


A term that came from the laborious task of metal typesetting, kerning in the digital world refers to the distance between two adjacent characters. Graphic designers often employ manual kerning to achieve high-quality typesetting, where the negative space between letters may otherwise be visually unappealing.


Leading is the amount of space between text lines in a paragraph. More precisely, it measures the distance from one baseline to another. As is the case with most spatial adjustments in typography, leading can make a great difference in the overall aspect and readability of your text. Use it wisely!


A ligature is a glyph obtained from joining two or more letters. You can easily notice ligatures in script or calligraphy fonts, where the letters flow smoothly, or serif fonts. Increasing in popularity are ligatures for sans-serif fonts, particularly useful in clean-looking typography logos or graphics.


Monospace fonts will remind you of typewriters, and that’s because they were created for typewriters. Their most notable feature is that each character spans the same width. This allowed them to remain popular in programming and text editing, due to the enhanced readability of source code.

Point Size

You use this measurement every time you set the text dimension in any writing and editing software. When adjusting the size of your font, bear in mind that different fonts at the same point size may have different sizes on the page. The size required will also vary between digital and print formats.


The term ‘script’ refers, in typography, to the typefaces composed of handwriting strokes. Script typefaces are quite versatile and have gained popularity partly due to the fluid aspect that comes with the curvy ligatures. No worries though, quills won’t be necessary – computer software kept up with the trend!


A swash, in typography, is a flourish present in script, calligraphy or old-style typefaces, often in italic forms. The whimsical look is among favourites for book typesetting. Always use a swash character or typeface in suitable locations, where they won’t hinder the text flow.


Not to be confused with kerning, tracking defines a uniform increase or decrease of space between letters, affecting the density of the entire block of text (as opposed to the space between two specific letters). You will find the letter-spacing largely depends on the context, so adjust it to match your design.


While this may seem the posh way to say ‘font’, there is a slight difference between the two words. ‘Font’ encompasses the function (see the font file you install on your machine), as well as the aspect – the typeface. In other words, the typeface is what the font looks like. They are, however, used interchangeably nowadays, so don’t worry about getting it wrong!

Vector Fonts

Also known as outline fonts, these show their best qualities when used for large scale print. The vector format ensures the font is fully scalable with no pixellated edges. The result? Clean, precise rendering that requires no further processing.

Printing Terminology


While not a life-threatening condition, a picture will ‘bleed’ when it touches one or more edges of the page. This no-margin approach is often used for sleek, modern publications, although it comes at a higher printing cost.


The term refers to the quality of a colour based on the parameters of hue and what is known as purity, saturation, or colourfulness. It is part of wide research in the field of colour theory, with practical applications such as colour matching and determining colour appearance.

Cover Proof

Also known as ‘jacket proof’, it is an early print of a book cover. You may include this in a marketing strategy, as its main purpose is publicity.

Crop Marks

Because printers can’t cover the edge of the paper, certain publication formats require printing on larger sheets, which then need trimming. Crop marks, also very suggestively known as trim marks, indicate where your publication’s sheets should be trimmed.


These two terms and their meaning can often be confused, but they actually mean very different things.
DPI refers to the number of printed dots per one inch in printed images – it describes the resolution of printed image.
PPI refers to the number of pixels per inch in an image displayed on a computer screen – it describes the resolution of a digital image.

Full Measure

Type that is ‘full measure’ spans the entire width of the page, column or frame it’s set in, without any indentation. The text is, therefore, ‘justified’. Keep an eye out for severely widened gaps between words – this is a common typesetting issue.


The gutter usually defines the empty space between facing pages of a book (inner margins). A less common use refers to the gap between two columns.


Perhaps better known as ‘dust cover’, it wraps around the cover of a hardback printed book. Along the title and author of the book, it can feature illustrations, bibliographical information, a blurb and reviews from industry authorities.

Natural Spread (Centerfold)

You probably noticed a centrefold in magazines or other multi-page publications. Thanks to saddle-stitch binding, the two pages in the middle can accommodate a large image without significant interruptions. Magazines can use portraits, posters, graphics or high-quality photos.

Registration Mark

Often depicted as a cross, the registration mark is printed outside the boundaries of the publication. It is a system employed in colour printing to correlate overlapping colours on an image. This ensures the outcome is printed cleanly, without fuzzy or blurred images.


Publishing Terminology


The main use of the word may be to define a duplicate, but the publishing industry added another meaning: the typeset written material of a publication (and not photos, graphics, or other layout elements).


A digital publishing format which you may have already used on your computer, tablet, smartphone, or e-reader. It supports reflowable text, particularly convenient for different device sizes. Because it uses HTML and CSS for styling, this format takes the shape of a packaged website.


It most commonly defines the printed page number in a book. It can, however, refer to a folded sheet (two leaves) on which four pages are printed, or a booklet made of such ‘folio sheets’.

Format (file)

This is the digital file format a designer would use for the typeset document. You may encounter Adobe Illustrator files, Quarkxpress files, Microsoft Word files, TeX files etc.

Format (layout)

When describing the layout of a page or publication, the term ‘format’ defines the collection of characteristics that construct the appearance. From basic settings like page size and margins, to indents, leading and crop marks, these details are the key to a flawless look.

Proofreading Terminology

Block Quote (Extract)

Long quotations (four lines of text or more) are sometimes placed in a single block without quotation marks. You can magnify the visual impact of a blockquote through the use of indentation, italic typefaces, or different type sizes. Additionally, you can separate the block quote from the body text through a line (or half a line) of white space.


Not a deadly weapon, but a critical mark first used by Greek scholars, as a single line ‘–’ or ‘†’. In modern typography, it is used as a footnote marker if an asterisk has already been used. A variation of the symbol is the double dagger, which has two handles ‘‡’.


Dingbats, also known as printer’s characters, are simple, decorative characters, such as arrows, asterisks, stars or flowers. Modern dingbat fonts may also include symbols of everyday devices or logos such as smartphones, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram. If you employ dingbats as bullet points, make sure you use them consistently throughout the text.

Front and back matter

The title page, dedication, preface, abstract, table of contents and other lists are all pages that can be included in the front matter. These are often numbered with lower case Roman numbers. The back matter may contain appendices, indices, the bibliography and a list of acronyms used in the publication. These are usually numbered with Arabic numbers.

Hyphen, Em Dash, En Dash

The Em dash is a long, horizontal line that spans the width of the letter M. It is used in pairs to enclose a word or phrase, or alone to indicate a break in a sentence. The En dash is slightly shorter, covering the width of the letter N, mostly used to define ranges (such as June–July or 18–21). The hyphen joins words or indicates the division of a word at the end of a line.


This is the collection of typographical instructions, corrections, deletions or insertions added to a manuscript in the form of notes or marks. Modern PDF readers and word processors allow for notes to be added directly to the digital document.

Oxford Comma (serial comma)

In lists containing three or more items, the Oxford comma is added after the penultimate item in the list, before “and”/“or”. Although its use before “and” has been much debated, there certainly are instances where it can add clarity to the text.


This is an explanatory word or a phrase used inside a text fragment. It is usually separated from the text by a pair of parentheses, commas or dashes. The text fragment may still be grammatically correct even if the parenthesis is omitted.

Style Sheet

The style sheet contains all the technical information that renders the layout of a publication. It specifies precise measurements and attributes of styling elements.

Widows and Orphans

While there is some disagreement over the meaning of the words (in the industry), a widow is the last line of a paragraph standing alone at the start of the page. An orphan is the first line of a paragraph when it stands alone at the bottom of the page. The negative perception of these occurrences is diminished if they are full measure.

Visual Design


If you have a business, you must have gone, at some point, through this process. Branding, or creating a brand, is a process that defines the image of a company and how it will be perceived on the market. Used along with the company’s mission statement, it encompasses finding a unique name and creating graphic design elements upon which all subsequent marketing efforts will be based.


Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black is the current printing standard. You might notice that black does not match the K at the end. That is because when every colour had its own printing plate, black was referred to as the “Key” plate. Red-Green-Blue is used for display colours. The main difference between the two is the colour you would obtain when mixing them. CMYK are subtractive and mixing them gives black. RGB are additive and mixing them gives white.

Copy Block

A copy block is a fragment of text treated as an independent element in the layout design. It usually contains more than one line of text often justified in its frame.

Flush vs. Ragged

In typesetting, text can be aligned (flush) to a margin, frame, photo or other elements. If perfectly aligned on both sides (an effect achieved by adjusting the space between words), the text is ‘justified’. If only one side falls flush with the edge, the other is called ‘ragged’.  Ragged text is a standard in Arabic and Hebrew typography (right-aligned) and on the World Wide Web (left-aligned).

Negative Space

Negative space is the extra bit of white space around your text. Adjusting the spacing comes in handy when you want to add emphasis to your subheadings, or to make your text light and open for your readers. It is intrinsically linked to the leading: more space means improved readability. Don’t exaggerate though – it can become visually unappealing.

Optical Centre

The optical centre is the point your eyes will be naturally drawn to when looking at a page, photo, graphic element etc. Because this is the focal point of the layout, it is best to position here the item that you want emphasized. There are different proportions for different layouts, so it’s good to do a little research for your own projects.


A palette is the set of colours you would use to define the appearance of your publication. Choose wisely, because there is a fine line between a neatly emphasized text and a messy colourful blob that would send the printing price through the roof or leave your readers scratching their heads in confusion.


Pantone is a colour matching system used mainly in commercial printing. It was widely adopted by designers (especially for branding) because it ensures a specific colour will be printed, regardless of production stage or type of machinery used.

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a principle applied to design and photography to create more interest in the subject of the graphical element. Because the focal points are offset from the centre of the frame, the subject appears better integrated with a flowing, balanced image.


Typographic texture is rendered through the spacing of elements – symbols, letters, words, paragraphs etc. Consistency in spacing produces high-quality typesetting. Another type of texture designers often use is the application of a recognizable visual of a textured surface (wood, for example) to a flat element to make it pop.