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I would like a quick way to determine the column width necessary to create the optimal 65 characters per line rule. Glyph width differs between typefaces, so this article suggested:

The alphabet length is determined by the width of the lowercase a through z, historically measured in points. This measurement varies depending upon the typestyle and point size being used. Therefore, varying the font and/or point size will affect the optimum column width.

I have googled "alphabet length of ___ font" and got nothing.

  • Your reference is a bit misleading. Line length and general horizontal measurement are in ems (proportional). Also, points (fixed) is a bit cumbersome so picas are preferred by many. – Stan Jun 3 '16 at 1:00
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    @Stan - No, the reference is bang on. It might as well have been directly quoting Bringhurst. – Stan Rogers Jun 3 '16 at 2:02
  • @StanRogers - a reference can be misleading no matter how "bang-on" someone else believes it is. : ) – Stan Jun 3 '16 at 2:18
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    Lol I had to re-read your comments 5 times before realizing there is more than one Stan who I thought was arguing with himself. – Bar Akiva Jun 3 '16 at 5:22
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    @BarAkiva - : ) – Stan Jun 3 '16 at 12:01
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The article doesn't give you any formula or action to take with the alphabet length once you have it, it only states that is affects the optimum column width but suggests determining column width by word or character numbers. So, if the only reason you want to measure your alphabet width is because of that quote in the article, there's no need.

If you do want to measure the alphabet length, the quote tells you exactly how to do it in the first sentence!

The alphabet length is determined by the width of the lowercase a through z, historically measured in points. This measurement varies depending upon the typestyle and point size being used. Therefore, varying the font and/or point size will affect the optimum column width.

Type out lowercase a-z and measure the width. Done.

It depends what you're doing but it's often useful to compare alphabet lengths relative to each other, but not taking literal measurements.

I don't suggest setting your column width based on a set formula (e.g. exact multiple of character widths). Line length is only one factor in readability. Typefaces used, leading, margins, number of columns, context etc. all impact on readability.

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Here's how

The line length of the full alphabet in lower-case (miniscules) measured in ems is the easiest, fastest and most accurate way to compare fonts.

In practice, about 30 ems has become the "best-practice" for line length. That works out to roughly two-and-a-half average-sized "alphabets." That works out to about 65 characters…

on average, that is. We would refer to that condition as regular or medium set type.

When that length is exceeded, we say that the face is extended—wider than normal. Those are best-suited to compose wide-measure lines and letter-spaced text.

It's easier to read.

When that line length is less, we say that the face is condensed—narrower than normal and is best suited to compose narrow column of text to avoid over hyphenation and awkward word breaks.

It's easier to read.

TIP: for quick calculation and evaluation of unfamiliar faces: Set 12pt sized alphabets so that one pica is equal to one em. Then, you can use a normal type stick to read the pica-length directly in "ems."

It's easier to read.

NOTE: An em, you'll recall, is the point size (full vertical height of the typeface) when used horizontally. Thus 1 em of an 8 point typeface is 8 points. 1 em of a 72 point typeface is 72 points.

  • The number of characters/words you can get into a line of a given length in ems varies drastically among typefaces, even if they are in the same nominal style like, say, "book roman". Counter shape, stroke width, and x-height are only some of the elements that can make one "twelve point serif book roman" alphabet more than twice as long another. Ems are almost completely useless for determining line length, even if they may be a useful measure after you have determined the line length. – Stan Rogers Jun 3 '16 at 1:57
  • @Stan Rogers - Will you please give me the names of two 12pt serif book roman faces such that one is more than twice as long as the first? – Stan Jun 3 '16 at 2:13
  • @StanRogers - Will you give me a use for ems after the line length has been determined? – Stan Jun 3 '16 at 2:15
  • Howzabout Bernhard Modern versus Century Schoolbook? The point is that line length is not about line height, it's about the number of characters/words per line and their effect on readability and hyphenation. Since uppercase is essentially decoration (or special symbols, if you prefer), the lowercase alphabet works as a good proxy for set text when looking at line length. Ems then become practical, since that lowercase alphabet can be measured in ems, which can then be used for electronic delivery or for scaling type and page size in printed matter. – Stan Rogers Jun 3 '16 at 8:51
  • @StanRogers - Thank you for your reply. I think that you have both missed and clouded the point I was getting at. – Stan Jun 3 '16 at 11:56

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