I love to linger over a nice set of ligatures – almost as much as I love to alliterate.
What’s a ligature? Don’t feel bad if you have to ask. I was initiated into such typographical mysteries later than I care to admit. Be forewarned, however: once you discover them you will find it hard – painful, even – to live without them.
The sad fact is that certain lowercase letter forms don’t get along very well together. They can’t seem to keep their arms and ascenders to themselves and are constantly invading the space of their neighbors. The most notorious problem child of them all is f, who behaves particularly badly when placed beside l, i, j, k, b, h or another f. He is even known to cause problems with certain, ordinarily well-behaved punctuation marks when left unsupervised in their vicinity.
In the days when texts were written by hand, scribes often got creative in their handling of some of these letter combinations by binding problematic pairs (or even trios) of letterforms into a single, seamless unit when the situation called for it. (The word ligature comes from the Latin verb ligare, meaning to tie up or to bind together.) With the advent of moveable type, this practice was continued by the creation of separate metal casts for the desired combinations. In the era of digital type, the desired results are (in principal) produced most easily – if the producers of a typeface include the necessary ligatures as part of the font set, if the publishing software makers allow for them to be readily appropriated, and if the end-user knows or cares enough to bother about them at all – a chain of requirements which is tragically broken more often than not in practice.
Notice the variations in the following examples. (The text is set in Adobe Garamond Pro using Adobe InDesign.) In the first example, ligatures are turned off. (In InDesign, the ligature feature can be toggled on or off via the pull down menu on the Character palette.) Notice how the ffi combination in Officina creates some ungainly crowding and uncomfortable tangents, particularly between the terminal on the f and the dot on the i. (Adobe Garamond Pro is actually more generous than some typefaces, where you would find these letters actually colliding and overlapping most abhorrently.)
Now ligatures are turned on.
Ahhhhh, that looks and feels so much better!
Open Type fonts such as Adobe Garamond Pro (for you professional users out there) also often contain extra “discretionary” ligatures which can be appropriated if so desired. (In InDesign, again go to the Character palette, access the pull-down menu and go to Open Type > Discretionary Ligatures. Also, going up to the Type menu and selecting Glyphs will open up a separate palette displaying the complete character set for that font – ligatures, punctuation marks, diacritics and other special characters – which you can explore to your heart’s content. Just place the cursor at the appropriate point in your text box and double-click on the desired glyph to manually insert.) Notice the ct in the example below.
While standard ligatures ought to be just that – standard use for anyone with even a modicum of typographic sensibilities – discretionary ligatures are a bit pretentious and distracting for normal body copy, though they can create some nice results when setting display text, if the added touch of sophistication is desirable. So, be sure to use them as the appellation suggests – with discretion.