Letter Anatomy

From , former About.com Guide

There is a standard set of terms to describe the parts of a character. These terms, and the parts of the letter they represent, are often referred to as “letter anatomy” or “typeface anatomy.” By breaking down letters into parts, a designer can better understand how type is created and altered and how to use it effectively.

In the images below, the part of the character being discussed is in red, or circled in red. A few extra terms, such as baseline and x-height, are included to help understand and describe the letter anatomy.


The baseline is the invisible line on which characters sit. While the baseline may differ from typeface to typeface, it is consistent within a typeface. Rounded letters such as “e” may extend slightly below the baseline.
The meanline falls at the top of many lowercase letters such as “e,” “g” and “y.” It is also at the curve of letters like “h.”


The x-height is the distance between the meanline and the baseline. It is referred to as the x-height because it is the height of a lowercase “x.” This height can vary greatly between typefaces.

Cap height

Cap height
The cap height is the distance from the baseline to the top of uppercase letters like “H” and “J.”


The part of a character that extends above the meanline is known as an ascender. Note that this is the same as extending above the x-height.


The part of a character that extends below the baseline is known as a descender, such as the bottom stroke of a “y.”


Fonts are often divided into serif and sans serif. Serif fonts are distinguishable by the extra stroke at the ends of the character, known as a serif.


The vertical line of a “B” and the primary diagonal line of a “V” are known as the stem. The stem is often the main “body” of a letter.
The horizontal lines of an “E” are known as bars. Bars are horizontal or diagonal lines of a letter, also known as arms, and are open on at least one side.


An open or closed circular line that creates an interior space, such as in “e” and “b.”
Typography is the art of arrangement, style, appearance and printing of type and typefaces. Understanding its laws and inner workings is essential for producing quality designs.

Typography Terminology

Using correct nomenclature is vital to communication, especially technical communication.

Since letters are the foundation of all typographic communication, letter nomenclature is a logical place to begin to build your typographic vocabulary.

The terminology of type is not difficult. Many terms have simple or obvious terms.

Parts of a character:

Apex – The uppermost point of a character where the vertical strokes meet. There are different apex types such as rounded, pointed, hallow, flat and extended.

Arm – A horizontal stroke that is free on one end as in E and F. The sloping stroke in the letter K would also be considered an arm.

Ascender (neck) – The part of lowercase letters, such as b, d, f, h, k, l and t, which ascends above the height of the lower case x or x-height.

Bar (crossbar) – The horizontal stroke in the A, H and similar letters that connects two stems.

Baseline – An imaginary line upon which each character rests. Characters that appear next to each other are usually lined up so that their baselines are on the same level. Some characters extend below the baseline, such as g and j, but most rest on it.

Bowl – The enclosed oval or round curve of letters like D, b, g, and o. In contrast to a closed-bowl, an open bowl’s stroke does not meet with the stem completely.

Cap-height – Height from the baseline in any font to the top of most capitals. Note that well-formed rounded characters, like O, Q and S, often are taller than other caps, and may drop below (dent) the baseline; this is considered good practice, making them more legible. The cap height does not necessarily coincide with the ascending line of ascending lowercase letters.

Counter space – The enclosed or partially enclosed space within a character such as c, e, g, H or S.

Descender (tail) – The part of some lowercase letters such as p, q or y that descends below the baseline. In some typefaces, even uppercase letters like J or Q may descend below the baseline.

Ear – Small finishing stroke that projects from the upper right side of the bowl as in many versions of the lowercase g.

Hairline – A thin stroke usually common to serif typefaces.

Link – The stroke connecting the top and bottom of a lower case g.

Loop – the lower portion of the lower case g.

Point Size – Method of measuring the size of type, commonly known as font size. It measures the distance from the top of the highest ascender to the bottom of the lowest descender in points. In Europe, type is often measured by the cap-height in millimeters. 1 inch = 12 picas = 72 points = 25.4 mm

Serif – Small, finishing strokes on the arms, stems and tails of characters. Traditionally, Serif typefaces are considered better for large volumes of text because the serifs make it easier for eye to move along, horizontally.

Shoulder – The curved stroke of the h, m, and n.

Spine – The main curved stroke of a lowercase or capital S.

Spur – A small projection off a main stroke; found on many capital G’s.

Stem – Straight vertical strokes of letters, most evident in H and I , or a main straight diagonal stroke in a letter such as N.

Stress – The direction of thickening in a curved stroke.

Stroke – A straight or curved line.

Swash – A fancy flourish replacing a terminal or serif.

Terminal – A curved end to a stroke usually apparent on the tail or stem of some letters such as a, j, r, t and y.

Two-story character – Letter that has two counter spaces where one is above the other.

X-height – The height of the lowercase letters, not including the ascenders or descenders, typically based on the letter x.

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