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All About A
A and a in type
by Jacci Howard Bear
 


This page is brought to you by the character "A" and the glyphs we use to represent it. "A" is the first letter of the English alphabet and is found in other languages as well.

On a standard QWERTY keyboard the "A" key falls just below the Q and is normally typed using the pinky finger of the left hand. The character we know as uppercase A is assigned the decimal code 65 in Latin-1, ASCII, and Unicode character sets. In Windows, you can type an uppercase A with ALT+065 (on your numeric keypad) - a good trick to know if the A on your keyboard gets stuck. The code for lowercase a is 97 (ALT+097) in Latin-1, ASCII, and Unicode.

The Evolution of A
According to The American Heritage Dicionary of The English Language, third edition:

The first letter of the alphabet originally represented the sound of the Semitic glottal stop at the beginning of the word 'aleph, "ox." (the mark looked much like K) Because their language had no glottal stop, the Greeks reassigned the letter to the vowel a. (shaped more like a combination of Xl) The classical Roman capital form is still used today.

The glyph (graphic representation) of both uppercase A and lowercase a can vary greatly from one typeface to another depending on the whim and desires of the type designer. However, if a designer strays too far from the established familiar shapes their font becomes harder to read and less useful for communication.

The Shape of A
In today's typefaces, the glyph for uppercase A, even with its many variations and interpretations, is usually recognizable as two diagonal stems that meet at the top with a horizontal bar connecting the two stems.

The classic roman A with serifs. The clean, crisp look of sans serif. Very slight serifs but still the classic shape here. Rather than pointed or flat, this A is rounded on top.
One way that typefaces vary the look of A without altering the basic triangular shape is to manipulate the bar, changing its shape or position, making it more or less obvious. It may extend beyond the stems of the A or be partially or completely disconnected.

Lowercase a has two basic glyphs, often called upright and italic although the italic style can be found in non-italic faces. Some decorative faces also use one of these general styles to represent an uppercase A.

The first two glyphs for the lowercase a character are the upright style in serif and sans serif. The italic style glyph (without the upper terminal over the bowl) is found in some non-italic fonts including sans serif faces and script typefaces.

Among script typefaces, capital A usually comes in one of these general variations:

This style of script A has a swash on top. It may be a simple flourish or one with elaborate curls.
In this style of script A the left stem connects to the bar of the A.
In this style of script A it is the right stem that connects to the bar of the A.
While the other styles follow the same basic shape as the classic roman A, this style of script A is more like an italic style glyph for a lowercase a. It may or may not have extra swashes and flourishes.

 

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