July 7, 2006

ASK MORDY: OpenType Ordinals

What, you don't know what an ordinal is? It's a fancy type word, like ligature, or glyph. Yes, every profession must have its own special words, and typographers are no different. Seriously though, an ordinal is a character that is reduced in size and that has a higher baseline. Examples of where ordinals are used in the English language are when you set something like 1st or 2nd or 3rd, where the "st", "nd", or "rd" are made smaller and moved upwards. In fact, if you're using OpenType fonts, you'll notice that Illustrator's OpenType palette has a specific button to activate ordinals. Nice, right? Well, if they would only work that is...

The following question came in from Jarrod Galm the other day:

I own the Adobe OpenType collection and I'm trying to use create a 1st with the st portion being displayed as ordinals. When I go to the OpenType pallete, the Ordinals option is availalble. When I highlight the st and click ordinals, nothing happens. When I click ordinals and type the st, nothing happens. The only way I can create the ordinals is by using the baseline shift. Am I doing something wrong?

To be perfectly honest with all of you (and Jarrod), my initial thought was that yes, you are doing something wrong, because I had used that feature before and it worked fine. But then I tried several different typefaces, and I found that while some of them worked correctly (like Minion Pro for example), others did not (try Myriad Pro). Huh. Well, I was stumped. I took a look at the Glyphs palette and was surprised to find that while some OpenType fonts had the ordinals I expected, some of them only had ordinals for the letters "O" and "A"... How odd. I couldn't figure out why anyone would need such ordinals, and again, where were the others? Now I was intrigued...

So I picked up the red FONTPHONE and Thomas Phinney, Adobe font guru extraordinairre answered on the other end. After telling him about Jarrod's question and my initial findings, Thomas responded with this wonderful quip "This is a great question - I think I will write it up for my blog." (ok, so actually, this conversation with Thomas ocurred via email, but it was much more exciting to make up the story about the fontphone).

And so it was. Thomas has posted a detailed explanation of just what is going on here in the land of the ordinals:

"This OpenType font claims to have ordinals according to the InDesign/Illustrator user interface, but I typed "2nd" and applied ordinals formatting, and nothing happened. Closer inspection just yields more questions - why do virtually all OpenType fonts have ordinals for "a" and "o," but many fewer have the usual "st" "rd" and "nd" ordinal letters?"

You can find Thomas' entire post here. At the very least, you'll have broadened your horizons to include a glimmer of understanding about other languages besides English.

Basically, Illustrator is indicating that the font does indeed have ordinals -- just not the ordinals that you might expect. For those of us who speak (and type) in English, this behavior is certainly confusing and makes Illustrator appear as if it's broken. And that's never a good thing :)


Jack said...

Interesting problem, Mordy, and thank you for looking into it.

It's disappointing that OpenType collections somehow "miss" English ordinals like "nd" and "st", considering how common they are.

Am I interpreting your answer correctly as "yes, use baseline shift to create English ordinals"?

Thanks again!

Unknown said...

In the typefaces that don't have the ordinals you need, then yes, using Baseline Shift is your only solution.

Unknown said...

Do any fonts have an ordinal for ®?

The superscript version just does not look correct at certain point sizes (e.g.: 12 pt) In metal type the ® was not as small as a superscripted version we often use in body copy.