Letterspacing Capital and Lower Case Letters in Hand Composition Involves Problems

Although it is not difficult to explain some of the standard procedures of letterspacing, when we try to outline the reasons for introducing spaces between letters—either lower case or capitals—it is not difficult to make a statement that will not be challenged by typographers.

In the matter of lower case composition, letterspacing is a doubtful procedure unless the job is being set under duress, and by that I mean, under conditions which make standard word spacing difficult. These conditions could be listed as the setting of extremely narrow measures necessitated by run-arounds, trick composition, high speed operation on low-cost work, or simply an unusual run of bad luck on line-end breaks in jobs requiring strict adherence to copy.

At the upper end of the scale, where the typographer is graced with ample time, a generous budget, and perhaps some control of copy, it might be appropriate to recite the dogma, “No letterspacing of lower case!” Most typographers, however, find that in practical operations they must strike a happy medium between the excesses of the newspaper column and the requirements of the fine book.

Exponents of the “don’t do it” school cite typographers’ efforts over some five centuries to fit the miniscule letter snugly alongside its partners in countless combinations. They decry the production man’s disregard of aesthetics in his attempt to standardize procedures and thereby keep down costs. There is room for both viewpoints in this diversified industry, the typographer being required only to exercise sound judgment in deciding when and where to depart from acceptable standards of composition.

Rule for Letterspacing

To provide specific information to the apprentice, a rule might be formulated that letterspacing is employed when it is necessary to word-space more than an en quad in order to justify a line. In keyboarding, the operator must judge what constitutes that particular space. Generally, in type sizes up to 14-point, it is unnecessary to space lower-case optically. Instead, we simply resort to placing spaces between all of the letters of enough words to justify the line. Care must be exercised to see that a word is not partially spaced. The actual spaces used will vary with the line, but a copper or half-point card should be sufficient. The most objectionable practice consists of using a spaceband on a slug-casting machine, allowing the wedge to do the work.

Adding space between letters proportionately reduces, to the reader’s eye, the word spacing in the line. Should this space be of standard thickness (equivalent to a three em space) or even less, the words have a tendency to run together, becoming unintelligible to the reader. Variations are introduced by using condensed type in which an en quad would be too wide for a word space, and in extended or bold face, allowing a normal wider space up to two-thirds of the em.

No Scientific Formula

The necessity to letterspace is reduced as the measure widens. With 10- to 12-point type sizes, the ratio of letterspaced lines declines sharply at a line length of approximately 20 picas. A table could probably be constructed to indicate, percentagewise, the number of letterspaced lines occurring at various pica measures, but the findings would be of little practical value because copy can vary from job to job. Good spacing is controlled by the frequency of word breaks occurring in ordinary composition. No scientific formula can be applied with any degree of success. The operator must use his own judgment.

Very few of the principles which apply to letterspacing of lower case can be carried over to the spacing of caps. Here, the typographer’s only problem is to make the line of capitals appear optically correct to the reader. No one argues with the importance of this arrangement, particularly in display composition.

Because of our reading habits, caps are always difficult to read. In addition, we have the problem of placing in juxtaposition a number of unrelated shapes in such a manner that they will be smoothly interpreted in their entirely. Otherwise, they will seem to break into little groups and will slow down reading speed. Although our modern capital alphabet has remained relatively unchanged for some 2,000 years, we have become so familiar with the lower case form that reading of caps is anything but “short takes” is now a laborious procedure for us.

All Caps Difficult to Read

Despite the fact that the capital letters have a beauty far surpassing that of the lower case letters, we are unable to assimilate them in mass. Any visitor to Washington, D.C., can put this thesis to the text by going to the Lincoln Memorial and attempting to read the inscription of the Gettysburg Address. It is a task of considerable magnitude to read the famous speech in its entirety, even though the whole inscription is a work of dignity and beauty. The printer will be interested to note the liberties taken by the stonecutter in spacing between words and fitting in the individual letters.

In letterspacing of lower case, the compositor is concerned primarily with justification, while in handling caps the problem is of optics. The individuality of the various capital letters interferes with their blending into a readable group. Few words set in caps do not require some optical correction.

In recognizing this fact, most printers make some attempt to letterspace caps for reasons other than merely stretching a display line, but the careful printer applies this consideration to nearly all composition in capitals, with the possible exception of text matter. Without any optical correction, a word in caps will tend to divide itself into little groups separated by spaces of varying widths, thus slowly down the reader’s recognition of the word. This factor should be a key to determining how much space must be added or taken out. No definite rules cane be followed. The compositor must be responsible for adjusting bad gaps of space.

However, the typesetter does have at his command several techniques for producing the desired result, depending upon the requirements of the job. If there are no bad combinations of characters, such as AV or TA, space might only be increased between “tight” combinations to compose a satisfactory word or line quickly. If there is a poor arrangement of letters, any corrective procedure must be governed by whether or not the measure will allow fairly wide spacing, and by the kind of type used.

In most instances, notching of letters must be used to achieve a closer fit. Notching can be done on a circular saw without much chance of damaging the letters. The plant equipped with a type-mortising machine can perform this operation with ease. A minor disadvantage to notching may be that an individual character cannot be used again in a different combination of letters.

Must Be Shaved at Angle

Because small sizes of type do not lend themselves to notching, they must be shaved at an angle in a hand mitering machine. This practice is difficult to handle in the line. Spacing out small sizes is easier because the optical fitting can be more readily accomplished with copper or brass spaces. With display types that are used frequently, it might save time and energy to select several of each of the characters—A, T, V, W, Y, and possibly F, L, and R—and undercut them on the saw for use only when needed. These letters can be stored in a separate compartment in the case. However, this practice is feasible only when a specific job calls for the use of a handset type in quantity, as in the imprinting of certificates or diplomas.

With this method a single undercut letter can be utilized in a triple combination, such as AWA or ATA, where the only sawed letter is the one in the center. Undercutting the tail of the R allows tighter fitting of such combinations as RO and RU.

An ever-present danger in notching or undercutting type is overcorrecting the fitting, creating a combination that is as bad as the original. This mistake can be observed frequently in cap composition, even when the rest of the line has been carefully fitted. The final decision lies with the typographer, who must constantly refine his sense of proportion.

Through the years, many treatises have been written on this subject, both for and by artists and printers alike, some of them practical and informative others introducing theories of proportion and the applications of mathematics. The apprentice who wishes to acquire the knack of proper spacing of capitals must read everything written on the matter, but most important of all he must examine the work produced by real craftsmen so that he can develop mature judgment and understanding.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the August 1954 issue of The Inland Printer.

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