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May 24, 2003

Interesting misinformation
Posted by Teresa at 12:35 PM *

They call themselves Back Yard Publisher, but I prefer the page’s title tag: Publishing Your Manuescript. Their motto is good, too: Remember! There’s A Publisher in You’re Own Back Yard.

Most of their page is given over to explaining hitherto-unknown Alternate Facts about book design, typography, and printing. For instance:
In gravure printing the letters are etched into a plate (usually Copper), then ink is forced into the letters, scraped from the area around the letters and paper is forced onto the ink at extremely high pressure. The ink is then transferred to the paper. This is what the song “In Your Easter Bonnet” is all about.
You know— “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, / You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade …” Bet you never suspected. BYP’s biggest contribution to our understanding of movable lead type is the Alternate Fact that lead was wholly inadequate to the task:
Letter press printing is the original method of transferring ink to paper which was the predominant method of printing until the last thirty to fifty years. In this method ink is rolled on the face of the type, then a piece of paper is pressed into the wet ink and transferred to the paper. Obviously the method worked very well, although the pressure necessary to transfer the ink to the paper created many problems by smashing the soft lead type and making it useless. Letter press is seldom used today.
And no wonder. This unfortunate property of lead type also affected typography:
Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in 1440 and every since that time there has been a struggle between topographers, the people who design the type and the printers or use it.

Typographers have been concerned with how the type appeared on the page and how easily it could be read. …

Printers, on the other hand, have had to deal with a different set of problems, one of the biggest was the smashing and destruction of their precious type. This was especially true when one line of type extended beyond the normal ends of the rows of type. To prevent this destruction of the type the printer simply put some of the spacing he would normally have at the end of the lines between the words (called word spacing) or between the letters (called letter spacing) thus, solving his problem. When this happened we then had a justified page.

This is the only reason there ever was a justified page; …
Which makes the carefully justified lettering in some medieval manuscripts a complete mystery.
In a recent unofficial survey of the best sellers in a local book store it was observed that some of the best sellers are still justified where others are not.
That was a remarkably unofficial survey. With the exception of plays, poetry, and the Whole Earth Catalog, I can’t think of any bestsellers that have been set rag-right. One strongly suspects that what he was looking at was dialogue. And a return to his original theme:
Many books have been written on the use of type so it will not be discussed here. The important things one should know about type is that there are two basic styles of type. One is known as serif; the other as san-serif. A serif type is the style used throughout this book. The small lines under the letters, slashes on the “S” etc. are the serifs. There were probably added to the basic letter style by the typographer to prevent smashing the type in the days of letter press printing.
I hadn’t known the Romans used letterpress. If you’re a type designer and are drinking coffee while you read this, pause now and swallow.
As a general rule if you want to have a book that is easy to read use 12 pt. type with 1 d line spacing. Smaller type with less spacing will make a smaller book that will be harder to read and more then 1 d line spacing does not significantly improve the readability.
I’ll give him this much: He’s right about spacing in excess of line-and-a-half not improving readability.


Many people go their entire lives without ever giving much thought to the interior design of books, and aren’t any less happy for it. Book design is inside-baseball stuff. If you’re a reader, it does affect your life—a well-designed book is much easier and pleasanter to read—but it’s not something you’re supposed to have to think about. If you do, it’s probably because something’s gone wrong.

One consequence of desktop publishing and the spread of DIY self-publishing is that amateurs are having to figure out the mysteries of frontmatter and type design. My advice would be to find a professionally published book that looks like what you had in mind, and do whatever it does. You can leave out the quotes from the reviewers. What you should not do, under any circumstances, is take Back Yard Publisher’s advice on anything. Title pages, for instance:
The title page is the first page of information it contains all of the publishing information about your book. It will contain: Title of book
Copyright information
ISBN Number
Edition Number
I’ll bet he means which printing this is.
Publisher information
Library of Congress information
Where it can be purchased
Price of book
Wrong. First, these days the title page is most often the third page, preceded by the (if hardcover) half-title or (if paperback) front sales page, and the panel (other-books-by) page, and followed on recto by its fraternal twin the copyright page. Some other arrangements are possible, though they’re best undertaken under proper rabbinical supervision.

Second, most of that information belongs on the copyright page, not the title page. The price, and where it can be purchased (unless by that they mean the publisher’s address, or possibly the name of the distributor), belong on neither.

BYP never even mentions the existence of the copyright page. That’s bad. It’s the finickiest page in the book, and it shares with the title page the distinction of having legal requirements attached to its design. One doesn’t want to get that wrong.
The Preface is placed on the third right hand page of the book. It is usually a short synopsis of the book. This is where your best pitch for buying the book is placed over the cover pitch.
It’s possible for a preface to start on the fifth page of frontmatter; but if it’s a short synopsis of the book plus a sales pitch, it’s flap copy or front sales copy, and belongs on the cover flaps of a hardcover or the first frontmatter page of a paperback.
A Table of contents is normally used in a nonfiction book. It is normally not used in a book of fiction; however, chapter titles are sometimes used in fiction books. The table of contents should always start on a right hand page.
The presence of a ToC in fiction is entirely up to the author; and a ToC can fall on a left-hand page if that’s where you need to put it.
Note: Many times it is easier to generate the table of contents after the last page of the book rather then at its normal position in the front of the book.
Say what?
Generating it in the front of the book will normally change the page count and make it incorrect.
We already know BYP doesn’t know squat about book design, but if we needed a smoking gun, this would be it.

Have you ever noticed that in many books, the frontmatter page numbers are Roman numerals, and the numbering re-starts with Arabic numerals in the main text? That’s to allow the frontmatter to expand and contract without affecting the main-sequence page numbers. Back before the days of electronic pasteup, repagination was a major issue. It’s still an issue if your book has a table of contents, a list of illustrations, or an index.

Why does frontmatter expand and contract? A lot of reasons. Authors remember things at the last minute. The map slated to be shot down to fit on one page proves illegible at that size, and has to be given a quarter-turn and made into a two-page spread. The table of contents is too long for its allotted page. The fulsome introduction never arrives. You know. Stuff. And sometimes, when the text come back from the typesetter a few pages too short or too long to make its divisible-by-sixteen page length, you can make it right without repaginating the main text by squeezing or padding the frontmatter. It’s very useful that way.

If you know anything about frontmatter design, you know that. And if you think it’s necessary to throw your ToC into the back of the book to avoid repagination, you don’t even know basic word processing.
Chapters always start on a Right Hand (Odd Number) page. There is no reason for this other then TRADITION.
Title pages go on right-hand pages because otherwise your book or pamphlet starts with a blank page, which is ineffectual, and disturbs the readers. Chapter titles are a variety of title page, and so tend to start on right-hand pages. However, you’re allowed to put them on a left-hand page if you want to do it that way, or even to “run in” your chapters, starting a new one on the same page where the previous chapter ended.

But you knew that, right? You’ve read a book or three. Doubtless, somewhere along the line, you’ve noticed the variable behavior of chapter starts. What dazzles me is the idea that someone who’s undertaken to explain book design has failed to notice it.

Comments on Interesting misinformation:
#1 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 06:20 PM:

Alternate is right!

#2 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 07:07 PM:

"Easter Parade" does have a line in it about "rotogravure". A quick Google

gets me this:

On the Avenue
Fifth Avenue
The photographers will snap us
And you'll find that you're
In the rotogravure

So, if the bozo had qualified his statement to say "this is what the BRIDGE of the song is about," he wouldn't have looked like such a bozo.

For that sentence, anyway.

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 07:21 PM:

I know. The line just means "your picture will be in the colored Sunday section of the newspaper." But his version, coming right after that screwy explanation of how rotogravure works, made me laugh so hard I couldn't read it aloud to Patrick.

#4 ::: Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 08:50 PM:

Of course, in matters of serious book design, I would earnestly consult the works of Mr Berry, of the Seattle Berries. Mmm. Berries.

But thanks for the swallow-first heads-up. I may otherwise have died.

#5 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 09:03 PM:

That's funny, and scary.

I don't, generally, hold it against people if they don't naturally spell well, but it's surely one of the lesser signs of trouble that BYP can't even use a spell-checker. I mean, in addition to not having read any books recently, and not knowing anything at all about the history and technology of the industry he's pontificating about.

Legal requirements for the title page? I had the not-very-examined assumption that the copyright page was The Legal Stuff, and the title page was principally governed by convention and the reader's desire to know what book they're reading. Can the title page legal requirements be described in a sentence or two?

#6 ::: Nancy ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 10:57 PM:

I think what still has me staring in open-mouthed wonder (amplified by my Percoset haze) is the concept of all that poor little "smashed" lead type. And serifs. And here I thought I was the one on drugs this week. Thank God the writer of that treatise didn't try to get into the concept of a colophon. One can only imagine his alternate interpretation of that.

#7 ::: weezee ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2003, 11:28 PM:

jeez I feel old.

Does anybody even know what hot type is?

Is there any living web designer who has actually used a compositor stick?

Or really, physically, printed a page?

Well, this person, who wishes to be regarded as an expert, clearly has not.

Oh, well. Past-sell-date technologies are only for the hopelessly romantic.

#8 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 12:00 AM:

Lis, the closest I can find to a legal requirement for these things are at Title 37, section 201.20 of the US Code, parts (b)(5)and (d). (This is referred to at the Copyright Office's "Copyright Basics" FAQ.):

(b)(5) A title page is a page, or two consecutive pages facing each other, appearing at or near the front of the copies of a work published in book form, on which the complete title of the work is prominently stated and on which the names of the author or authors, the name of the publisher, the place of publication, or some combination of them, are given.

[Note: I've seen older books that have more information than the above on the title page, but that sort of thing is rare these days. In addition to the information listed above, the logo of the publishing company is common, but that's about it in most cases. "Place of publication" though can list several cities in the case of some larger publishers, for example "New York -- London -- Toronto." Note that this does not usually include street addresses, just the name of the town and maybe the state {"Detroit, Michigan").]

(d) Works published in book form. In the case of works published in book form, a notice reproduced on the copies in any of the following positions is acceptable:
(1) The title page, if any;
(2) The page immediately following the title page, if any;
(3) Either side of the front cover, if any; or, if there is no front cover, either side of the front leaf of the copies;
(4) Either side of the back cover, if any; or, if there is no back cover, either side of the back leaf of the copies;
(5) The first page of the main body of the work;
(6) The last page of the main body of the work;
(7) Any page between the front page and the first page of the main body of the work, if: [ifs snipped]
(8) Any page between the last page of the main body of the work and back page, if: [ifs snipped]
(9) In the case of a work published as an issue of a periodical or serial, [not applicable to the topic at hand.]

So even the location of the copyright page as the verso/back of the title page seems to some extent to tradition or convention. The copyright notice basically needs to be somewhere fairly visible and properly worded. Title 17 of Section 401(a) requires "the symbol (AF) (the letter C in a circle), or the word ''Copyright'', or the abbreviation ''Copr.''; and (2) the year of first publication of the work; . . . and (3) the name of the owner of copyright in the work".

Also, I'm not sure rotogravure sections of the paper were always in color, but then the earliest ones I've seen, from the early 1900s, were on microfilm which are all black-and-white anyway.

#9 ::: richard sousa ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 12:07 AM:

As someone who has retired from the commercial printing industry,(4-color Heidelberg high speed press)this guy has his plates bent backwards. Nice article,Teresa. (via boing-boing)

#10 ::: Joe ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 12:46 AM:

More amusement:

As a side note the "Courier" type face is also available on most computers. It is the old monotype that was used on typewriters.
The old "monotype"? He means monospaced type, of course, not this. It's almost enough to make me think it's a hoax. Almost.

#11 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 01:24 AM:

Y'all are missing the most obvious clue to this outfit's cluelessness:

The entire damn web page is CENTER JUSTIFIED!

No, sorry, I take that back. The text inside the three columns of the "Table of Contents" appears to be left-justified.

It's also really badly laid out. I'm not an expert at these things, but after years of technical writing I've picked up some of the basics, and can see places where (for example) bulleted lists would have been appropriate.

#12 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 01:51 AM:

"Remember! There92s A Publisher in You92re Own Back Yard."

Damn. Someone must have seen me burying him. Luckily, I don't think they can find a jury that will convict me.

#13 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 02:02 AM:

I'm trying to figure out if I *have* a back yard. Perhaps that strip of landscaping in the alcove under my bedroom window?

It's kind of dim there, and it gets soaked twice a day by the automatic sprinklers. Maybe this book has a chapter on buying tarps for your offset press.

#14 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 02:42 AM:

Does have a web page and cutting duplicator stencils on a manual typewriter count?

I have, somewhere, a Windows font-set which has the extra, traditional, typographic characters, such as the "fl" pair. Not quite the same as the "ae" in the standard Windows charset, which is behind one of the differences between British and American spelling ("ether" and "aether", for instance).

But how often, these days, do typesetters bother with that sort of detail? Would it be a sign of a DIY job not to have that special character in "flood" or "flounder"?

#15 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 02:58 AM:

Is 'alternate' American for 'alternative' now? I've seen programmers use it in that way, but thought it a solecism, but if Teresa is doing so I am evidently out of date.

Dave, ligatures are alive and well in professional typefaces. If you used a Mac, you'd see them automatically inserted by the OS, when the font enables this.

#16 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 03:16 AM:

Kevin: I think Teresa is using alternate and in alternate realtiy.


#17 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 03:17 AM:

Grrr. that should be, " in alternate reality." Which is a well-known sf term.

MKK--proofread *before pushing the post button dammit!

#18 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 03:46 AM:

Hoo boy. Thank God Johannes Gutenberg figured out how to mill titanium letters, or civilization would still be stuck in the Dark Ages. My favorite: "The world of conventional printing has been turned topsy turvy with the advent of the computer systems."
Weezee, I remember reading proofs from the linotype machines in the basement at my first job in publishing. Etaoin shrdlu!

#19 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 07:12 AM:

I read the whole thing with my jaw dropped so far it hit my shoes. Luckily I was NOT drinking tea at the moment.

That (and all your learned comments) simply have made my day.

See--learn to use the web and you have all the information you will ever need!

And right in your back yard.


#20 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 08:12 AM:

Oh dear... that's just WRONG.

Thankfully, my beverage was in the other room when I happened upon this page (Via Boing-Boing)..

Now I want to go reread my copy of Bringhurst's "Elements of Typographic Style." ( I may be a physics major/MATLAB programmer, but I have an alarming fascination with typography. )

#21 ::: Elric ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 08:16 AM:

The first lines here caught my eye, and my compulsive nature immediately told me that _someone_ should (at least) fix the errors in the freaking motto!

If this is an example of expertise in the print industry, I can hang out my shingle as a freelance astrophysicist (earn big bucks, impress chicks!) on the basis of my failed period as an astronomy major more years ago than I care to think about.

Theresa, thank you for sharing.

#22 ::: dingbat ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 08:17 AM:

He's half right about the lead. Pure lead is too soft, hence the use of antimony as an alloying additive. Shooters who cast their own bullets still collect old linotype alloy, to mix with cheaper pure scrap lead from wheel balance weights.

As to the serifs issue, are others aware of the significance of Fourier analysis along the axis of the letter's limb, and the effect that the serif has on improving readability here ?

A sans-serif character has an abrupt square-ended stop to it. As Fourier tells us, this requires high frequencies to create, or in the visual sense a very high resolution. The serif is analogous to "ringing" in an electrical circuit - the equivalent of constructing such a dead stop from the lower frequencies alone. With vision of limited resolution, the serif makes the edge appear more square and "sharp" than the sans- variant.

#23 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 08:17 AM:

Well, heck. I've been looking around the site, and most of the books they offer are ones that are perfectly reasonable for self-publication. There's one, (Humorous Beat: Actual Funny Police Stories by Officer Bob Morrissey) that I might even buy myself (it has a reasonable Amazon sales number for small press), and some of the others, like Sailboat Self Steering You can Build and Tiny Bubbles: The Art of Carbonating Beverages (both by Bill Wensel), are just the sort of specialized non-fiction that self-publication handles so well. I Survived the Bataan Death March by Bob Body looks like another perfect self-publishing project. I can absolutely understand why he needed to publish it.

My guess is that these are all books by Bill Wensel and his friends. Bill is the guy who wrote What Do You Do After You're Written "The End": A practical guide to getting your manuscript earning money, the volume quoted extensively here. Bill is a retired sea captain who is currently working as a shop teacher (another of his books available from Back Yard Publisher is Woodworking: Beyond the Basics, Projects and Techniques for the Advanced Woodworker). Maybe he owns or has access to a PoD machine. In addition to making and selling books, Bill will also sell you Wensel's CounterPressure Filler, useful for working with carbonated beverages as described in his book Tiny Bubbles.

It looks to me like Bill Wensel, working from first principles alone, tried to figure out Publishing, approaching the project with enthusiasm. Go, Bill! And some of his chums from the VFW and nearby retirement communities are with him on his journey. Go, them!

Unlike the hard-eyed scammers of much of the vanity press world, whose web pages shout Hey, Kid, Send Us Money and You Will Be a Published Author, Bill's page hooks its thumbs behind its suspenders and says Look At the Neat Books We Have. (Bet he'll show you pictures of his grandkids, too.)

I think it's charmimg.

#24 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 08:18 AM:

Lois, thanks.

So there's a legal requirement that the title page contain the obvious information. Ah, does that give me a sense of justification in my annoyance, when I've been trying to catalog the occasional book that does _not_ contain that information!

Doesn't do me the slightest practical bit of good, of course, but it feels good.

Teresa, I think you're overlooking the great step forward for the publishing industry that BYP and its ilk represent: if the truly clueless publish their own unpublishable slush, no one will have to read it, not even first readers at real publisher, not even the few sentences necessary to identify it as unpublishable. (I know, that's both heartless and overly-optimistic of me, but I'm trying to find something positive, here.)

#25 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 09:06 AM:

"are others aware of the significance of Fourier analysis along the axis of the letter's limb, and the effect that the serif has on improving readability here?"

In fact, several of us are quite aware of such things. Indeed, my father is (among other things) a type designer, and I'm just reverting to...

Ahem. Anyway. On a different subject:

"Unlike the hard-eyed scammers of much of the vanity press world, whose web pages shout Hey, Kid, Send Us Money and You Will Be a Published Author, Bill's page hooks its thumbs behind its suspenders and says Look At the Neat Books We Have. (Bet he'll show you pictures of his grandkids, too.)"

...I think Jim Macdonald has a point.

#26 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 09:11 AM:

BTW, I took Teresa's phrase "Alternate Facts" to be a nod to the Mike Resnick anthology series we did at Tor some years back: Alternate Presidents, Alternate Warriors, Alternate Plumbers, etc. (Putting "plumbers" into a list: always funny. The Practice of Comedy. New York: Catskills Press, 1878, p. 722.) Those were fun to think up covers for.

#27 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 09:25 AM:

Sasha believed until he was eight that a blurb was also part of the legally mandated requirements for a book.

He picked up a book in the library one day, turned it over, saw no blurb, checked the inside flap, still no blurb, and came rushing up wanting me to prosecute, or strike them with lightning or something -- he stood there spluttering (in a whisper) about "Wrong and illegal" until I thought he was about to say "That's against nature!" like someone in H.P. Lovecraft story.

#28 ::: Rivka Wald ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 09:45 AM:

I see also that, in conventional publishing, "everyone involved makes a fortune."

Time to start hitting up all the writers and editors I know for loans.

#29 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 10:06 AM:

I've been wondering about readability & serifs; I remembered reading that serifs increased readability on paper, but have come across several places asserting that they harm readability on the *web*, because most people don't have sufficient resolution to properly display the serifs. Or something.

As far as 12 point / line spacing: courts usually require papers to be double spaced, 12 point, and I wouldn't dream of doing it otherwise. But I agree that you don't need that in books. Is it because those documents are manuscript form, or is it differing expectations? I'm curious about how this works.

(I count myself a very very minor typography geek, which basically means I switched my legal documents from Times New Roman to Century Bookman when I read that Times New Roman was designed for newspapers where people would be reading quickly, and that a wider font was more likely to be read slowly. Also, I just think it looks nicer.)

I have nothing to say about "Back Yard Publisher" but that I'm baffled and, seperately, I also think Jim Macdonald has a point.

#30 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 10:59 AM:

Serifs are ancestral; they date from the days of quill pens, and they're one of the ways you can make all your letters come out looking the same by producing a consistent way to stop and start when writing with inconsistent liquid in on a slippery, polished surface.

They are also, and this should not be in any way dismissed, one of the ways in which you can decorate your letters.

Rather like all those 'Roman' Renaisance fonts are really Carolinginan miniscules because the folks looking at the books saw that it was good, and presumed that it must therefor necessarily be Roman and Classical and suchlike from the golden age of civilization.

#31 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 12:12 PM:

Just a side note and my personal pet peeve. Movable metal type was first used in Korea at least 70 years before Gutenberg. Some scholars push its invention in Korea as far back as 1234.

#32 ::: Rachel Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 01:47 PM:


Re: justified type--I believe we can go medieval manuscripts one better. Type is justified because that's the way G-d wants it to be. (Just check out a Torah scroll, with its neatly left-and-right justified columns...)

#33 ::: Dustin ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 02:54 PM:

"Note: Many times it is easier to generate the table of contents after the last page of the book rather then at its normal position in the front of the book."

Hmmm... I think you do a good job of discrediting the reasons this guy gives, but let me point out that in France, they do put TOC's at the back of the book. And they put the text on the spine going the "wrong" way (up the spine instead of down). Which maybe suggests that there's no good reason, one way or another?

#34 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 03:23 PM:

There are a lot of word processing programs in which it is indeed much easier to generate the table of contents at the end.

I don't have trouble believing that this fellow's software is like that; he might even have hit enough software like that to mistake it for the norm. (Which, in a perverse way among PC desktop products, it might actually be.)

#35 ::: cal godot ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 04:41 PM:

Four words:

Chicago Manual of Style

It contains the prescribed format, arrangement and descriptions of the entire book. Front matter is especially described in detail.

#36 ::: Chad Miller ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 06:04 PM:

Aw, that *has* to be a hoax. The "then"s and "you're" are too much! I think I sprained muscles laughing.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps the modern age needs a corrolary to Hanlon's Law: "(Almost) Never attribute to trollitude what can be adequately be explained by stupidity."

#37 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 06:47 PM:

Just a note on serifs.

Readability studies that I've seen invariably show that serif fonts are more readable for large blocks of text (ie, paragraphs), while sans-serif fonts are more readable for small amounts of text (ie, headlines). The few times that somebody has given me a reference for the meme "sans-serif is more readable on the Web", it's been for a study using short phrases -- not paragraphs.

Dingbat, the idea of the Fourier analysis is really neat -- I'll remember it. It's always nice to have aome math to back up the psychology. The studies I've seen talk about serifs leading the reader's eye along the line of text.

As to the origin of serifs, they predate ink-on-paper by a bunch. They were invented to make chiseling the letters into stone easier. When the Romans started doing ink-on-paper stuff, they used what is now called "full uncial" or "Roman uncial", which is very round, without risers or descenders or separate serifs, and rather closely spaced. It's not particularly readable. ("Modern uncial" or "half uncial", which has risers and descenders and occasionally serifs, is quite readable.)

#38 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2003, 10:37 PM:

I personally find san serif easier to read on the computer screen. This is an anecdotal report brought to you by the letter T.

And by the way, this seems like a good place to say. Teresa: I find the comments section on your blog very difficult to read because it seems to display with not enough space between the lines so that ascenders and descenders often run into each other. I do not have this problem on any ohter blog, including Patrick's. Is this one of those, the ways of computers are mysterious and not for us mortals to understand things?


#39 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 12:12 AM:

jeez I feel old.

Does anybody even know what hot type is?

It's only hot until you get the callouses built up. Then, it's merely warm type.

Is there any living web designer who has actually used a compositor stick?

No -- they poke themselves in the eye trying to open the help menu, and die of lead poisoning. I did once fubar a video driver setting, and ended up with a mirrored page. It was fun being able to read it, but I could only do it well if it was 12pt New Century Schoolbook.

Or really, physically, printed a page?

Well, I've never physically printed a page. I find that I can only push so hard, and not evenly at all -- and the plate slips and smears the ink. The press does a much better job at it, and furthermore, makes a much cooler "kerchunk" than I do when it makes the impression.

Well, this person, who wishes to be regarded as an expert, clearly has not.

What, on the Internet? NEVER!

Oh, well. Past-sell-date technologies are only for the hopelessly romantic

Or those with a really large shed out back, a huge garage, or a really big, well ventilated basement.

#40 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 01:11 AM:

Lis, I'm not even sure the bit about title pages in 37 USC 201.20(b)(5) is so much a legal requirement as it is a definition to explain the use in (d). I know it all seems obvious to us, being book people such as librarians, editors and authors, that certain information belongs on a title page, but we're not Congressmen or lawyers. They may feel the need to spell it out.

As for books without title pages, the ones I'm thinking of that we have at our library are self-published memoirs in the local history section. Some have title pages that have the title and author's name, but nothing else. At least one just has the title and author at the top of page 1, just as you would do for a paper for school. And by self-published, I mean there was no vanity press involved -- the originals were typed and then mimeographed! (They were done in the 1970s, during the historical fervor of the Bicentennial.)

One of the misspellings on the "Back Yard Publisher" site that amused me was his constant use of "san-serif", sans the extra "s". Though my favorite was his reference to libraries using the "Dewy" classification!

#41 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 01:17 AM:

Serifs on a monitor don't work because the monitor doesn't have the resolution to make them look correct. Hey, type geek question--anyone know a Roman font that looks good set in vertical columns? I have a reason to imitate Japanese design for presentation, if I can make it look good.

Oh, and--now that we've had a good laugh at this guy's expense, anyone got a good book on self-publication to recommend?

#42 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 01:22 AM:

San Serif . . . add an "e" at the end and it could be the name of a quaint California town. Somewhere in the Napa Valley, maybe.

" . . .what can be adequately be explained by stupidity."

You got it, Chad. Whoever wrote this had an assignment shoved their way, checked a few books out of the library, and went at it like an seventh grader writing a report the day before it was due.

#43 ::: Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 02:47 AM:

I doubt you''ll fine anywhere, even in Califorina, called "Sane Serif". Though there should be such a place.

#44 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 05:06 AM:

They call themselves Back Yard Publisher, but I prefer the page’s title tag: Publishing Your Manuescript. Their motto is good, too: Remember! There’s A Publisher in You’re Own Back Yard.

Ahem. I also think that Jim MacDonald has a point: It looks to me like Bill Wensel, working from first principles alone, tried to figure out Publishing, approaching the project with enthusiasm. Go, Bill! And some of his chums from the VFW and nearby retirement communities are with him on his journey. Go, them!

Yeah. Go for it! I think Bill Wensel must have bought himself "a high speed laser printer which prints on both sides of the page (duplex) at 17 pages per minute" plus a colour printer and a perfect binder, and now he's self-publishing. He does mention making money, but he adds honestly: "Laser published books are printed and bound one book at a time and will not attain the high quality standards of expensive printing presses and binding machines."

Hell, if I had space for a high-speed laser printer and a perfect binder...

#45 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 10:36 AM:

I know about the correlation between sans serif and readability of large quantities of text, but I don't understand why it occurs. Is there a theory on why, oh ye typeface experts?


#46 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:22 AM:

Andrew --

The "e" goes on the other word:

Our second country of the week is 91San Serife92. Situated on the Western Pacific near the Solomon islands, it became an independent nation state from Britain in 1971. Its primary industries are sex tourism and printing flawed stamps for philatelists. The population is 131,000 .San Serife is a member of SEATO. The main language is English, pidgin and French (patois). Global warming has hit the archipelago hard. It became detached from its coral base in 1995 and has since drifted eastward with a northerly set. Various predications for its future are: An offshore tourist island of Seattle. Missing the Panama Canal and becoming attached to Chile.

From Expat Egghead

#47 ::: freyacat ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:32 AM:

What I want to know is what started the struggle between topographers and people who design type.

#48 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:38 AM:

Well, my position is that it has to do with what the eye does well. The human eye really is a lousy imager, that combines with extensive post processing to produce a remarkable (though easily fooled, thus, the legions of optical illuisons) imaging system.

The one thing the human eye is really good at -- motion detection -- doesn't really help us read type. We're fairly good with color -- again, only of limited utility when reading type. In the center of vision, however, which is a very narrow area that we scan about with -- we pick up a couple of other things. Resolution goes up, and we become quite good at edge detection.

This is the key. In a dense block of type, like a printed page, the overall image is a gray block -- a halftone with really large dots, if you will. What breaks the halftone dots into actual information itself is our ability to detect the edge of the characters, and resolve the shape of the dots into meaning in-and-of-itself, rather than just an element in a larger feild.

So? Why does serifs help? More sharp edges, is my guess. Esp. since serifs occur as "line stops" -- they tell the mind that "This bit stops here."

There is, of course, more to it than that. Just because you have serifs or don't doesn't mean you have a readable body face -- see Copperplate Gothic and Optima for counter examples. But, in the large sense case, faces that are readable when printed when set densely have serifs helping the eye's edge detection.

Note that bold caveat. Serif type on low resolution reproduction -- say, the screen you are staring at now (mine's 120 dpi, well above the average) -- serifs generate more noise than edge. Thus, the best screen fonts are built to perfectly fit the grid of the screen, and almost never have serifs. Printing doesn't have this limitiation.

Anti-aliasing only helps a bit. It fuzzes bad edges, which makes them a little easier to see -- but fuzzing edges isn't normally a good idea. Poorly done AA is really bad for readability.

There are, now, 300dpi flat panels. They cost a whole bunch. I'm looking forward to the day when I can drop a 300dpi screen onto my main workstations -- and use some lovely, serifed font as my main body text.

(Other huge difference between screen and print. Screens are *much* brighter than paper, driving the contrast up to readability damaging levels. Best thing you can do? Set your window background colors (not the desktop background) to a gray, not white -- just like TNH did with the blog. See how much easier black-on-gray is to read on a screen. Why? It's the same contrast as black-on-white is in a book!)

#49 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 12:46 PM:

One can of course also use gray on black and beeg type; I use a monospaced serif font (luxi mono) with a quarter inch minim height for console windows. Cuts down on eye strain amazingly.

#50 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 01:56 PM:

Something I've come across with black-on-grey: it doesn't work as well with smaller type sizes. I know of a few commercial web pages which do this, such as those for Demon, my ISP.

As near as I can tell, the problem is that the colour dots on the screen are in a triplet pattern which is comparable in size with the stroke width. White (As in the background of this bit) is all colours on, while black is all colours off. And grey is in between. And where the pixel boundaries don't like up with the edges, some of the pixels in the black area are turned on. It's a slightly jagged edge, rather than a straight line, and the same of the other edge of the vertical stroke.

It depends on the monitor settings, of course. But this tends to make thin lines shift towards mid-tones. Black is less black and white is less white, and the grey is still grey.

For my eyes and my monitor and my screen settings, the slightly smaller text of the stuff Teresa quotes is just starting to show this effect. This sort of effect is why I dislike web pages which screw up my ability to set the font sizes I want to use.

Incidentally, another side effect of monitor settings is the way that a slight change of text size can make the on-screen text look bolder, except for the odd vertical stroke which looks thin.

Going from screen to paper, even with an ordinary printer, can have all sorts of little side effects on the look of a page.

#51 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 03:18 PM:

What I want to know is: How many serifs can dance on the head of a pin?

#52 ::: Dave Fischer ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 04:11 PM:

I was under the impression that serifs long predateaRoman stone-chiseling (not that that's the firstastone carving of course, but that's what is usuallyameant when people talk about serifs and stone)aand can be traced back to Cuneiform in Mesopotamia,aintroduced roughly 3000 BC. (Wedge-shaped impressionsain clay tablets.) When the Phoenecians took elementsaof Egyptian to create the first pure alphabeticasystem, they used cuneiform's lines-with-wedge-endsastyle for writing them.

#53 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 08:37 PM:

I should have known that someone else would have already come up with a place called San Serife.

If it grounds near Seattle, I'll have to visit.

#54 ::: Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 09:51 PM:

Laura wrote: I know about the correlation between sans serif and readability of large quantities of text, but I don't understand why it occurs. Is there a theory on why, oh ye typeface experts?

To begin with, there is not really just one type of serif typeface, or one type of sans-serif typeface. This page gives a reasonably good overview as to what subfamilies you can find in the various typeface classification schemes (few of which agree on the subfamilies).

When people talk about readable serif typefaces, they usually mean either "old style" or "transitional" typefaces, and some of the "modern" typefaces that tend towards the transitional style. But a Bodoni, for example, while being a beautiful font for display purposes, has poor readability characteristics for body copy, mostly due to the strong constrast between the thick stems and the thin hairlines.

Whether old style and transitional serif fonts are actually more legible than sans-serif fonts is a matter of much debate. Most studies have shown either that serif fonts allow somewhat faster reading (by 20% or so) or that the race is too close to call. For very small sizes, some studies have observed the opposite. There is no conclusive evidence that I know of that serif fonts are generally superior for long-term reading, and it has been argued that the advantage of serif fonts exists solely because we are used to them, as opposed to sans-serif fonts.

Arguing in the abstract, we have to look at how people actually identify written text: We do not read text letter by letter; our eyes jump forward in so-called saccades, from the point where they were fixated a moment ago to the next. Saccades are mostly guided by the shape of the word closest to the current point of fixation. In essence, we recognize the shapes of entire words and phrases at once, using the redundancy of language to ignore irrelevant parts.

Proponents of serifed fonts argue that the presence of serifs makes it easier to recognize the shapes of words by making them more unique and reducing inter-character spacing. Proponents of sans-serif fonts argue that serifs are below the acuity level of the human eye, and generally invisible if not close to the point of fixation as well as during saccades (the visual jumps) themselves. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Personally, I like to go for readable old style or transitional typefaces, following the motto: "If it ain't broken, don't fix it". Readers are also probably more familiar with the common serif fonts like Times, Garamond, Caslon, and Bembo for body type and will recognize their patterns more easily during long-term reading than a Gill Sans, Futura or Syntax. An exception would be, for example, a book for children who are still learning to read, and where simpler letterforms are then an advantage.

Overall, the typeface is only one of many factors that affect readability. Line length, line spacing, intercharacter spacing, interword spacing, contrast, etc. are all factors to be taken into account.

#55 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:15 PM:

Nah, I don't think he's stupid. I think he learned his typography from Microsoft Word. The part about making sure you turn on hyphenation before you justify your pages is a tipoff. So is knowing about kerning but not leading.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he bought up his equipment when a printing shop went out of business. Jim's right. He's not a bad guy. If I lived in his neighborhood, I'd go down and offer to swap proofreading for woodworking lessons. If I had two copies of Designing with Type: A Basic Course in Typography, I'd send him one; but since I only have one, I'll keep it around so I can use it to show the kids why leading is leading and slugging is slugging, and why the little dabs of type giving the price and ISBN on the covers and spines of books are called the cover stick and the spine stick.

(Yeah, some of us know from hot type. I've even proofread u&lc.)

I've done self-publishing too. If you don't count the online stuff, most of it was done on a mimeograph, then stapled. For real swank, it was sometimes typed on a Selectric typewriter, photoreduced, and xeroxed. We got more words per page that way.

Kevin, that was "alternate" as in "alternately good", but the way I used "alternate" was the way I've heard it used all my life. Is that an American thing?

Dustin, the Table of Contents is best put where the reader expects to find it, and the direction of the spine type should be the same as it is on the other books on the shelf. This won't work with every reader and every bookshelf, but in general it's a good rule.

There's a difference between something being a convention and its being arbitrary. Conventions help reduce chaos and unnecessary noise. Look at spelling and punctuation; they're conventions. We could spell shirt and saffron as shert and saphron, and as long as we did it that way every time, there'd be little difference. But if we spell the words both ways interchangeably, it takes fractionally longer to read the text in which they appear.

When you're hunting for a book on a shelf, it doesn't much matter whether you have to bend over to your right or your left to read the titles, but it does matter that most of them run in the same direction. You can use a ToC in the back of a book just as easily as one in the front -- unless you're expecting to find it in the front, and don't discover until you reach the end that there was a ToC in there all along.

Some days I'll argue that conventions are the more to be followed because they are in a sense arbitrary. Other days, not. But in general, I believe in following conventions. The form of the text should convey meaning, not impede it; and the forms to which we are accustomed convey the most meaning with the least noise. I also think the readers' strongest emotions should stem from the words they're reading, and not from their inability to find what they're looking for.

Mary Kay, I can tell you that the name of that condition is zero leading or negative leading; but damned if I can tell you why it turns up in my comments when looked at on your computer.

Reimer, that was fabulous, and thank you. Saccades? That's a new one on me, though I recognize the motion it refers to.

Of course you can see serifs. I can see serifs, at any rate. Or I used to be able to. And when I get my new glasses tomorrow, I should be able to see them again.

Everyone: Martha Schwartz taught me that title and copyright pages are subject to legal constraints. Robert, why don't you ask her about that next time you see her? And tell her that I said hello.

#56 ::: pcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:38 PM:

Check out some of the books! Ketch and The Fall of the Dollar are excellent! ;-?

#57 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2003, 11:46 PM:

". . . the e goes on the other word . . ."

Please, folks. Her name is Sand Saref, and she is enjoying a comfortable retirement in a location I am not at liberty to acknowledge.

Just don't ask about P'Gell.

#58 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 02:32 AM:

I feel like Lois Fundis above has pretty much run down the legal requirements. Putting the a9 page on the back of the title is certainly the convention for major publishers in the US and, as far as Ive noticed, most of the rest of the world (it just occurs to me that while the US law may allow for a variety of formats, there may be more restrictive international requirements).
I will ask Martha what she thinks next time I see her--or you can do it yourself--I'll send you her email.
All this talk about copyright brings to mind the story I read awhile back about the young Iranian filmmaker who'd made a film based on a J. D. Salinger story. JDS's lawyers had forbidden her to show it for a single screening at a film festival, and she wrote the author an open letter, pointing out that since Iran was not signatory to the International Copyright Convention, there was no real way she could have gotten copyright permission. (JDS was unmoved.) (Memo to self: check Disney connections with push for war against Iran.) This got me to thinking about a lot of things...

#59 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 06:06 AM:

And this point, I'd like to take something that Teresa said, and to remove it from the context in which she said it:

"Conventions help reduce chaos and unnecessary noise."

#60 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 07:16 AM:

I've got my binoculars ready. We do see publishers in our back yard from time to time. What do I feed them so they'll come out of the woods? I've got to refill the birdfeeders so that the woodpeckers come out where we can see them. Should I leave little glasses of white wine out for the publishers? Or would they prefer coffee? A woman once told me that to l keep the squirrels in my yard healthy through the winter, I should smear peanut butter on my trees, but I don't think publishers would go for that.

#61 ::: Johan A ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 07:19 AM:

Alter, that's mean. Out of context, it is demonstrably a falsehood. Conventions impose chaos and increase noise, at least the ones I go to.

It is a pretty good example of the importance of context, though.

#62 ::: Anne Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 07:41 AM:

This reminds me of when a woman came to speak to our Evolution of Technology class about printing. She gave the usual intro about Gutenberg and when she got to the part about early printing presses with type set by hand, I (having been to colonial reenactment sites and seen moveable type presses) brought up how using the composition bars especially helped with the fact that the type had to be assembled right-to-left in order to print left-to-right on the page. She argued with me for a couple of minutes, asserting at first that the type was not backwards on the press at all.

Later in the conversation I brought up how the Koreans had been doing wooden block printing for three hundred years before Gutenberg's invention (Eric- I hadn't heard that they'd been doing metal type 70 years previous. That's even more interesting.) and, given that there were trade routes that came to Europe from over that way at the time, did she think there was possibly some transfer of ideas from Korea?

Though she had never heard of Korean block printing, she assured us that she did not believe there had been any transfer of ideas.

People often assume the authority to teach something they don't really understand.

#63 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 08:57 AM:

There are 124 copies of Designing with Type available used at starting at ten bucks.

#64 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 10:12 AM:

Speaking of Easter Parade though, I recall a version that goes:

Put on your old grey bustle
And get out there and hustle
Tomorrow the mortgage's coming due;
Put your ass in clover
Let the boys look it over
If you can't get five take two.

Put on that old blue ointment
The crabs' disappointment
And we'll kill those buggers where they lay;
Though it scratches and itches
It'll kill those sons of bitches
In the good old-fashioned way.

There's a third stanza that begins "Put on those old red panties/That used to be your auntie's...." but I regret that I don't recall it.

(Weirdly, not everything is on the web. Here's the closest I could find: )

#65 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 11:13 AM:

There's a thought, Mike: Sand in her retirement. I expect she's aged better than P'gell, though that daughter of hers would be enough to give anyone gray hairs.

Kathryn, the publisher I know best likes overdone cheeseburgers and beer. Maybe some agents can drop by to gnaw the peanut butter off the tree trunks.

Anne, I'm going to assume that a composition bar is the same thing as a composing stick. Designing with Type's detailed drawing in of someone setting type in the stick only shows one hand with a stick in it, so it might be going either way, but I'll assume the typesetter is holding the stick in his left hand and picking type with his right. If so, the type is going into the stick left-to-right. The lines are upside-down in relation to the typesetter, with the topmost line at the bottom.

That is: the first letter of the first line is standing on its head in San Diego, and the last letter of that line is doing the same in Jacksonville, FL. The second line runs from Seattle to Boston.

Aha! Found a picture on the web, Amalgamated Printers' Association, showing a composing stick full of type. It's been set left-to-right, bottom-to-top, relative to the typesetter. When it's rotated right-side-up, the type will run right-to-left.

I'm not saying she was right. I guess what I'm saying is that English is tricky, right and left are relative to the speaker, and the process of setting and printing from metal type is so full of rotations and reversals, that I'd hate to have to describe it in terms of right and left, let alone diagnose where a description of it went astray.

This is funny. You can't see how bemused I am. I'm finding it genuinely difficult to think about setting type in terms of what's left and what's right in relation to what. I have to confess that I've always just thought of it in terms of beginning of line to end of line, whatever that line's current orientation, and counted on the letterforms to tell me which way things are going.

(And yes, if I'm in your office I can read the upside-down documents lying on your desk. Not that I'm bragging. I'd bet the rent that a dozen or more people here can do the same.)

She was definitely wrong in saying that there couldn't have been any transfer of ideas. The absence of data does not prove a negative, and ideas can travel fast and far. Look at Sequoia inventing the Cherokee syllabary. He didn't speak English, much less write it. All he needed was the idea of written symbols that represent language sounds, and he was off and running.

James, you forgot an indecent lyric? I'm shocked.

I don't suppose there's someone I'm (*cough*) closely related to who can recognize that lyric and supply the rest of the verse?

#66 ::: Scott Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 02:00 PM:


One very good book on self-publishing is Dan Poynter's The Self-Publishing Manual (14th Ed, 1568600887, May 2003 or RSN ; 13th Ed, 1568600739, July 2001).

It can't be a complete guide to publishing for neophytes; it's only 500 or so pages long. It covers the basics of design, typopgraphy, & layout. There are also chapters on marketing, promotion, distribution, and much more.

As a recovering bookseller, I can testify that most small-publisher mistakes can be avoided by reading this book.

#67 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2003, 10:12 PM:

Missed your earlier post, Padrino. I'll take care of it.

#68 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 12:07 AM:

Wow, great! Thanks, Scott.

#69 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 03:32 AM:

Kathryn--From what I've seen of publishers in thieir native habitat, I would be extremely cautious about fedding them too much wine...

#70 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 04:05 PM:

When I was learning Linguistics, I was treated to a job talk by a graphologist who said that the advantage (strictly in printing; this was 1980 or so) of serifs is not merely psychological, but actually neurological.

The retina is part of a sense organ, but some consider it a part of the brain as well. It is capable of some very simple processing on its own. Because of various effects discussed above, it's easier to sort one letter from another when serifs are present. In fact, the line between what the retina can do and what it has to pass to the brain runs right through the middle there.

This means that serifed type, at least in printing, actually can be read more efficiently (since the retina is MUCH faster than the brain at its narrowly-defined tasks). This also explains why I get a headache if I try to read too much sanserif type.

Differentiability is a key determiner for readability. This is why minuscules (scripts or fonts with varying sizes of letters, with ascenders and descenders, etc) are intrinsically more readable than majuscules (scripts or fonts where all or virtually all the letters are the same height, with few if any ascenders or descenders). This is why ALL CAPS IS SO ANNOYING. It's actually more physical work to read. Printed Russian is pretty bad, too; no wonder they're cranky! (Just kidding.)

And I'm not at all sure I buy the stuff about sanserif being more readable on screen. How long ago were these studies done? Has anyone looked at them with modern monitors? My word processor screen today looks remarkably like a printed page (yeah, I know it's different), and I convert any sanserif type to Times New Roman 12 before even trying to read someone else's document. If I don't, I get a headache trying to read it.

But then I don't have a remotely normal brain. You should see my busy green-black-and-white basketweave screen pattern. It drives other people nuts; I find it soothing.

#71 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 04:33 PM:

As for 'alternate' vs. 'alternative' - I think there are just two usage dialects in this country. Personally, I seem to use 'alternative' when there's a real choice: "A fork in the road presents two alternative paths." To use 'alternate' in that context (speaking strictly about my own usage here) would imply that first one path appears, then the other, and that they never appear together.

Then there are phrases like 'alternate juror' - again, no choice involved. The alternate juror serves only if the regular juror is unable to. And 'alternate reality' means that everyone in it is as stuck as we are in our reality, whereas an 'alternative reality' could be held only by someone who could choose realities at will. Witches, for example. :-)

When someone writes "alternately, you can..." my first thought is that they want me to take turns doing the two things, not that they want me to choose. Usually I quickly figure out that they mean what I'd mean by "alternatively, you can..." in that context.

Please note that I'm speaking only about my own dia- or idiolect here. The fact that my usage is as described above does not mean I think the alternate (heh) usage is incorrect - nor will I brook anyone telling me mine is. I'm describing, not prescribing. I stress this because you'd be amazed how hot under the collar people get about usage, as if the moral value of their whole lives is called into question if you do not affirm that their dialect, and ONLY their dialect, is the one, true, only, CORRECT way of using English.

I don't understand it with regard to religion either, frankly, but that's quite another thread.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

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Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.