Should our words come adorned or just naked?

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The serif: Those small projecting barbs on the ends of letters that indicate more than mere ornament.

You are seeing serifs right now, tapering at the ends of the very markings.

Semi-structural detailings that echo the flick of an ancient pen or paint brush.

The addition of serif adjoins the letters to the category of permanence.

Serifs are to letters what plinths are to columns and monuments.

In this way, the serif is burdened with the weight of classical expectation.

The absence of the serif, sans-serif, tips the balance towards simplicity.

With sans-serif, bold becomes vivid.

It labors.

The fundamental elements of here are the straight line and the right angle.

These are the pleasures of regularity.

The greed for simplicity.


Letters lined up side by side.

Gesture towards the anonymous, the systematic, the empirical.

Dependable lines, trusted and balanced.

Restraint suggests righteousness, the same proposal as the ascetic.

An achievement in the realm of ethics and self-knowledge.

Sober up and edify.

Or join the poets-club by use of the decoration.

Novels wallow in serifs. (And yet the dust-jacket blurb, written by somebody else, tends to employ the san-serif. They are but editors and critics.)

The serif embellishment eloquently opposes the structured deliberateness of the sans-serif through the mystery of the permanence and indestructibility.

The serif recalls the classical past, a remnant of the Grand Tour.

Yet to see the serif as a faux-aristocratic pretence is to overlook the romance of the serif. The gliding arc that brings a letter to its conclusion speaks of the poetic drive, to seek harmony, to paint and to make music. Letters whose hallmark is the perpendicular and the angular are given structural melody by the addition of the serif. A vertical bar meets the line with a buoyant flourish. This organic form, much like the shape of a tree as it meets the ground and spreads its roots, it so much less brutal than the sans-serif.

This romance is akin to a type of diabolic splendor, pivoting between glory and immorality in a Byron-esque manner. In modern usage, this is taken as a hip-swinging swagger, the high point of recency-chic, and so the choice of the ironic and lascivious aesthetic, from “I love NY” t-shirts to wonderbra billboards.

Read more from Christopher P Jones at his website

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”. Website:

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