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What is the difference between these fonts, and what are some typical examples of why one might be used over another?

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1  
Look here. –  muntoo Jan 7 '11 at 5:15

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Serif Vs Sans Serif

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(a picture speaks a thousand words) Read @Calvin's answer for explanation.

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4  
Or a thousand bytes. (56400+GIF_HEADER to be more precise.) –  muntoo Jan 7 '11 at 5:45
    
lol gzip components for a substantial reduction in size :P –  Atif Mohammed Ameenuddin Jan 8 '11 at 7:24

Serifs are the usually perpendicular projections found on the termini/endpoints in type. For instance, a capital "I" is usually rendered with 2 crossbars. Those are serifs.

Sans-serif just means "without serif." The definition of serif / sans-serif typefaces should be self-explanatory.

Another name for serif is "roman"; likewise, sans-serif typefaces may also be referred to as grotesque / grotesk or gothic.

There are also different types of serif, such as slab serif—also referred to as Egyptian, mechanistic, or square serif—versus bracketed serifs.

Additionally, there are some typefaces with serifs that are still considered sans-serif. Bell Gothic is an example of this. And, lastly, some typefaces have what are called petit-serifs ("small serifs") or semi-serifs.

Edit:
As Charles Stewart noted in his comment, "roman" is also used to refer to the upright straight-lined typestyle (as opposed to italic) reminiscent of classical Roman chiseled type—from which serifs are also derived. "Roman" (by itself) is commonly the base font of a typeface or font family, but there can also be a "bold-roman", "black-roman", as well as "roman-oblique", which is slanted at an angle but maintains the same glyph shapes as the base font.

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3  
...or semi-serifs. –  e100 Jan 7 '11 at 10:44
    
Roman isn't a synonym for serif: it generally refers to the base font within a full font family, which is serif but is also not bold and not italic. –  Charles Stewart Jan 11 '11 at 7:34
    
@Charles: There are 2 uses of the word "roman" in typography, see: desktoppub.about.com/cs/basic/g/roman.htm en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_type –  Calvin Huang Jan 12 '11 at 13:33
    
@Calvin: I know, I think its used synonymously by people who don't bother to distinguish fonts from font families. I commented because I think "Another name for serif is 'roman'" is a bit misleading: better would be "Serif is sometimes called 'roman'". –  Charles Stewart Jan 12 '11 at 22:40
    
@Charles: I'm not sure that's true. There are strong indications that the term "roman" has been used to refer to classic serif typefaces by professional typographers for a long time. It's not just a misuse by people who are ignorant. It's a reference to 9th century neo-caroline miniscule based on Roman-style chiseled type (e.g. found on Trajan's Column). It's also the basis of the term Roman square capitals. For more info see: tcnj.edu/~miranda/classes/web/type.html –  Calvin Huang Jan 13 '11 at 0:49

atif089's and Calvin Huang's answers illustrate the main differences quite well.

For the usage, my general rule of thumb is:

  • Serifs for horizontal-intensive reading. Serifs help the eye to stay on the line while reading, and thus can make reading faster and more effortless.
  • Sans-serifs for vertical-intensive scanning. Without the serifs, it is easier to jump from line to line and scan for specific characters/words. Distinct characters are more recognizable because they have less in common (i.e. no serifs).

I'm uncited and these are rough generalizations and rules are sometimes good to be broken. See also a good article on typeface combinations on Smashing Magazine, which illustrates how and when to mix these two (sans-serifs for headings and serifs for body is a classic example).

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What they are has already been explained. I like to use serif fonts for a more classical / traditional design and sans for more modern / contemporary designs. That is, of course, not a hard and fast rule.

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For print, in the U.S., body copy is usually set in serif, while in Europe it's set in sans serif, and that readers in the various regions are trained to that.

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2  
Greetings from Finland (Europe). Your answer made me check through household's different newspapers and magazines. Result: all but the comics had a serif body copy. I don't know how it is stated in your reference's citation (Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable), but it is outdated, too vague generalization or just plain wrong. Also Wikipedia Sandbox as a reference sounds dubious at best. –  koiyu Jan 7 '11 at 20:55
    
I shall stand corrected, then. I do recall reading about this phenomenon years ago, but it could have been the same citation Wikipedia made. –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 7 '11 at 22:25

See difference between serif and sans-serif font on serifsansserif.com. Take a look.

Usage, common (in web) is serif for titles and sans-serif for body text.

Cheers!

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