Font issues

31 January 2010

If your text is of the plain vanilla variety (using Times, Arial and other similar fonts), then there should be no font-related problems in the typesetting of your book. However (and here note that this is a Western publisher speaking), if you use any non-standard text like that listed below, then you will need to start talking seriously with your editor – indeed, you should have done this months ago.

  • Text with diacritics or special accents (Vietnamese, for instance, uses multiple accents over a single Latin character).
  • Other special fonts or character sets (ornaments, for example)
  • Non-Latin script (e.g. Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese).
  • Mathematical and scientific symbols (many based on Greek letters).
  • Formulas (often a complex arrangement of super- and sub-scripted Greek letters and other symbols and markers that must be precisely placed but still run into the main text).

There are dangers in the use of such special text, three that I can think of right off-hand:

  1. The big danger is that everything turns to custard in the conversion process (an issue I shall return to in a few days time). This can be a result of incompatibility between fonts and/or between computer operating systems, something I have discussed in an earlier post.
  2. Moreover, just because you got this Chinese font free with Word, it doesn’t mean that it can be used by your publisher without paying a heft price; this issue, too, I have explored elsewhere.
  3. And finally there is the issue of readability (something I have also written about earlier and enraged a few people as a result); I would argue that every insertion of special text creates a ‘speed bump’ in the smooth reading of your text.

Please think very hard before using such special text and, if you must use it, then consult with your production editor at an early stage.

(Post #12 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

When is it OK to use diacritics?

27 August 2009

This is my last (and somewhat delayed) post in a series examining issues behind the use of (special) fonts and diacritical marks. The posts up to this point have tended to focus on the challenges, namely:

After such a long litany of bitching about diacritical marks, it would be reasonable to conclude that I (and most publishers) am opposed to their use in all instances. Not at all, but everything has its place.

So when is it OK to use diacritical marks? The short answer is, that depends. The long answer? Here is my take on the issue – but first a personal comment. In this blog, my idea has been to make general observations applicable to all authors working in the humanities and social sciences (and hopefully to many others, too). Unconsciously, though, I am carrying a lot of ‘baggage’. For instance, my experience is largely limited to English-language publishing (though located in a non-English country) and my comments on diacritical marks are framed by this. Sorry if my assumptions come across as grossly ethnocentric.

Language and common usage

The English language does not include diacritics (though it does have a few accents and other marks). Hence words and names determined to be English (and therefore included in an English dictionary) should not have diacritical marks. The result is that name describing the body of Muslim legal scholars that once was rendered in text as ulamā now appears plainly as the English word ‘ulema’. Similarly, although orthographically it may be more correct to render Japan’s capital city as Tōkyō, the correct name in English is Tokyo; this is what copy-editors will demand that is used.

The main argument in favour of this approach is not so much that the English word is more correct (though there are a lot of purse-lipped editors who would take this line) but rather that keeping to common usage promotes quicker comprehension. Common usage is one of the three C’s of all good writing discussed in our book.

Nor does this mean that foreign words and names cannot appear in English-language text, of course, or that they should drop their diacritical marks if they do. For instance, it would be plainly wrong and ridiculous to render ulamā as ulema in a block of transliterated Arabic text. Likewise, if a Japanese book title rendered in rōmaji includes the city name Tokyo, obviously the diacritics should be retained (i.e. Tōkyō should be used).

Of course it is another matter how many such foreign words and names should appear in your text, hence my earlier comments on clutter and other readability issues.


As is implied from the above discussion on language, location matters; the latitude in content and usage granted by editors for text set off from the main running text (in notes, references, block quotes, etc.) is far wider than what is acceptable in the main text itself. Again, this is influenced by considerations of readability (and the perception of many editors that notes and references, especially, are less important; they are often distractions ignored by the wiser reader). But ultimately here there can be no hard and fast rules; other factors like context and common sense should come into play here (see below).


Many scholars will argue (often vehemently) that diacritics are integral to scholarly accuracy. For instance, Jacqueline Stone of Princeton University states:

‘For all but the most common words, failure to use proper diacritics is in effect equivalent to misspelling, and like other kinds of misspelling, can create unnecessary difficulties in understanding or looking up names and terms and can even change the meaning of words.’ [link]

Returning to the above example, then, Tokyo may be a universally recognized place (and hence its name spelt in this plain form) but thousands of other places in Japan are unknown elsewhere; many have similar names. As Allan Grapard observes, ‘without diacritics, nobody could figure what place I am talking about’. [link]

In a similar way, the correct understanding of foreign terms often needs diacritics to be present.

Common sense

That said, meeting such needs can be handled intelligently. For instance, it is often possible to properly present a foreign word or name on its first appearance (with diacritics, non-Latin script or whatever) but thereafter use it in simplified form or even adopt an English equivalent. Readability is thus enhanced without loss of meaning. This approach may not always be possible but the key thing is to be aware of – and treat wisely – the divergent demands of scholarship and audience. Here, as is often the case, a pinch of common sense makes all the difference.

Readership/type of publication

It should almost go without saying that what you are looking to publish and for whom it is intended are important considerations. John Whalen-Bridge of the National University of Singapore suggests that we definitely think about this context.

When the discourse is among specialists, it is not necessary to jettison diacritics.  [But] a word that can appear without diacritics in a non-specialist article would look funny, kind of naked, if it appeared among its linguistic peers and relatives sans diacritical underwear. [link]


Just where you are looking to be published – by which press/journal – is another important factor. Like it or not, some presses stick rigidly to conventions that made sense fifty years ago in the age of hot-metal type but today look simply hidebound and conservative. If using diacritics is imperative for you and it is simply impossible to get round a publisher’s hostility to these, then I suggest you find a more suitable press. No press is irreplaceable.


Nonetheless, authors can win arguments with their publisher – and they need not necessarily be ‘big shots’ to do so. Assertiveness and a convincing argument from authors can often work wonders, as Jacqueline Stone recounts:

I’ve co-edited three volumes of scholarly essays on Buddhism, all published in the last three years with reputable university presses. In two cases, my co-editors and I relied on the JIABS list of Buddhist terms appearing in Webster’s Third International Dictionary and did not italicize these, but we did include full diacritics. This required some educating of both our copy-editor and the press editor (for example, we included the JIABS list with the ms. when we submitted it for copy-editing and explained why we were following it). In the third case — a volume intended as an undergraduate textbook — my co-editor and I italicized all Buddhist terms with the first usage and provided full diacritics for all names and terms with each occurrence. For all three volumes, although it may not have been their preference, the press editors agreed to full diacritics when we made clear that this was standard usage and expected in our field. So I’m cautiously optimistic that it may still be possible to hold the line on diacritics in academic publishing. [link]


In many of the points discussed above, the actual context can have an overriding influence. Rather than labour the point here, I would simply observe that hard and fast rules are nice to have but the actual situation needs to be considered on each occasion (and a healthy dose of common sense added to the analysis).

A final word

Ultimately, then, the use of diacritics is a difficult issue and one that calls for a skillful balancing act – how to stay perfectly true to one’s scholarship without unduly limiting one’s audience … or running out of publishers. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the next issue I am tackling is that of self-publishing. That discussion has in fact already started.

Font compatibility

11 August 2009

Readability is an issue with the use of fonts and diacritical marks (as discussed in my previous post) but it is not the only issue. Font compatibility is also important.

Playing safe

There are thousands of different fonts out there. By all means choose fonts that you like but be aware that a document with uncommon fonts when opened by someone else may be unreadable or convert to a common font with strange results. The safe move is to choose standard fonts like Times, Arial and Helvetica or those that are Unicode compliant.

When playing safe isn’t an option

Such an approach is sensible if all that you need to write is ‘plain vanilla’ text. Many authors, however, need to go beyond vanilla and insert symbols and other special characters into their text, examples being:

  • Text with diacriticals or special accents (Vietnamese, for instance, uses multiple accents over a single Latin character).
  • Non-Latin script (e.g. Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese).
  • Mathematical and scientific symbols (many based on Greek letters).
  • Formulas (often a complex arrangement of super- and sub-scripted Greek letters and other symbols and markers that must be precisely placed but still run into the main text).

In their case, standard fonts cannot be used.

Mac vs Windows

Part of the problem here is due to incompatibilities between computer operating systems. Much of the publishing world is Mac based (because of the high quality results and stability possible in this environment) while most authors work in the Windows world. This can have consequences, as happened with a prize-winning study that we published some years ago.

One of my many nightmares with fonts and diacritics

On paper, the text was reasonably clean and the author wrote beautifully. Yes, the text was full of Vietnamese diacritical marks but – notwithstanding my earlier post dealing with readability – it read like a dream. However, when we began typesetting the book, the whole project turned into nightmare. Basically, the author had used two Windows-only fonts for the diacritics, one for capital letters, the other for lower case. When we converted the text over onto the Mac, much of it turned to junk. And unfortunately different garbage symbols (like the delta sign) had one value if the original letter was upper case and an entirely different one if lower case. It took 3-4 weeks to sort out the mess and even then a handful of errors slipped through the two rounds of proofing. Luckily, the author was a dream to work with and – as noted – the book went on to win a major prize in its field.

This is not the only such hassle with fonts and diacritical marks I have experienced. No, over the years, I have gone through quite a few – far too many – nightmares with font conversions. All have involved diacritics.

A brighter future?

Hopefully, I face fewer potential nightmares in the future as, in general, diacritics and non-Latin script are less of a problem today than previously. This is due to general acceptance of the Unicode standard for font mapping and the rise of Open Type fonts based on this standard. The common Unicode standard gives each character form its own unique identifier which allows easy swapping between fonts, so it is imperative that any font you use is Unicode compliant.

Other issues

(That said, just because it is technically possible to splatter your text with, say, Arabic characters, this does not mean that you should do so. Consider the issues of readability and ‘speed bumps’ discussed in my previous post and ask yourself what is necessary, not what is possible.)

There are also wider issues with non-Latin script such as the input method and the direction of input, as will be discussed in a later post. In addition, unfortunately, not all fonts are compliant (to the best of my knowledge, for instance, no Unicode standard has been adopted yet for Lao script).

Publisher resistance to the use of diacritics

Notwithstanding these advances, many publishers still refuse to accept works with diacritics and non-Latin script due to the added production cost and general hassle, while others refuse to have non-Latin script in the main text but allow it to appear in a separate glossary that can be typeset separately from the bulk of the book. If it is necessary to include such special characters in your book, then the ability and willingness of a publisher to handle them must influence whom you approach with your script, and you may be asked to find significant sums of money to finance the extra typesetting costs that your choice causes.

Personally, I am quite open to the use of diacritics but there are limits. Essentially, the result of my bad experiences with non-standard fonts and psychotic diacritical marks is such that today I am only interested in working with fonts that are Unicode compliant and preferably Open Type fonts.

Personal consequences

As far as I am concerned, then, it is not enough to say that “this font is standard in the [Microsoft] Office package, so what’s the problem?” If the font turns to garbage when the manuscript is converted on the typesetter’s machine, then to me and to most other publishers that’s what the font is, garbage.

Should such a problem happen with your text, then, if the text in question is a manuscript on offer to a publisher (rather than one already accepted), immediately you have an added barrier to getting accepted; your manuscript looks like it could be a hassle to produce – better, thinks the publisher, to flag this one away.

Time perhaps to rethink your use of fonts and/or diacritics?


11 August 2009

Readability is a huge topic, something that I shall return to at a later date (soon, I hope). Today, however, I shall focus on the role that fonts and diacritical marks play in the readability of a work.

Layout important

Essentially, readability consists of two elements. Language and the other literary factors are the ones most often focused on by authors – and without doubt they are important. But almost equally important is the layout, especially the font used, characters per line and leading (line spacing), because readers are discouraged by something that confuses the eye or otherwise is difficult to read. Scholarship that is worn lightly combined with a reader-friendly layout can be crucial elements in the success of a book.

Fonts and readability

Fonts play an important role here. Some fonts are easier than others to read. Serif fonts (with ‘feet’) like Times are far easier to read in running text than sans-serif fonts (without ‘feet’) like Arial and Helvetica. Serif fonts are best for body text, while sans-serif are often used for headings because of the greater visual impact. As an author, you will have little control over the fonts chosen by your publisher (or their typesetter). But before you can get published, you have to ‘sell’ your manuscript to the publisher. Here its visual attractiveness is important, much more than you may think. Remember, then, that when preparing your manuscript, you choose font sizes that enhance its readability and acceptability. The standard is 12-point Times, boring perhaps but eminently usable.

Diacritical marks as ‘speed bumps’

A complication here is the need for (or use of) diacritical marks. Obviously, there are situations – many situations – where an author feels s/he must use diacritical marks (or non-Latin script, for that matter) to properly define a term or render an accurate description.

Unfortunately, like it or not, diacritical marks add clutter to a text (so too do italicized text and footnotes, while arguably end notes and cross-references – which draw the reader away to another page – are even worse). The heavy use of any or all of these slows down the reading speed (hence why I often call them ‘speed bumps’) and reduces the readability of a text.

Does it matter?

For a reference work, perhaps this doesn’t matter (as for example was the case with the Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts that we published a couple of years ago). But for a monograph reaching for a broader audience, readability is definitely an issue. By definition, not all of its readers will be specialists in the field(s) addressed by the book. They need to be encouraged to open the book and get absorbed by its contents. Encountering a thicket of italicized foreign terms garnished with diacriticals (often right from the beginning of the work) is no encouragement.

So what, you may ask, does it matter? Yes, it does, actually. Today, readability is not an issue that can be ignored. While it is true that some presses can – and still do – publish works solely for the 50 or so specialists in a field, such presses are in trouble today and besides actually they are not doing any favours to the author with such a limited approach.

But not the only issue

However, readability is not the only issue arising from the use of fonts and diacritical marks. In my next two posts I shall move on to explore the related issues of font compatibility and font licensing.

Issues with fonts and diacritical marks

11 August 2009

In the last few days I have got into a bit of hot water on the H-BUDDHIST discussion list by making a hasty, ill-worded comment about diacritical marks. The reaction has forced me to write a more considered response to the list and it is on the basis of this that I now write a series of posts dealing with the wider topic of fonts and diacritical marks.

In earlier times (before the advent of modern Open Type fonts), diacritical marks were often detested by publishers for the difficulty of typesetting them correctly. Today, however, there may be a lingering suspicion among hidebound presses towards diacritical marks but I think that – in this wonderful, new world of digital fonts and Unicode standards – the majority of presses are not at all hostile to their use. However, there are issues with diacritical marks (as with fonts) that now we shall explore. These issues shall be explored in turn over the next 5 posts: