the spelling of sans

Nick Sherman's picture

Here's a trivial but interesting semantic survey question:
Usually just writing "sans" is enough to get the idea across of a serif-less typeface, but when using the "-serif" suffix, do you prefer:

  1. "sans serif" (as it is in the Oxford English Dictionary)
  2. "sans-serif" (as it is on Wikipedia)
  3. "sanserif" (as spelled by Robert Bringhurst)
  4. something else?
blank's picture

I prefer sanserif. That’s how James Mosely spells it, and if there’s an authority on the matter, it’s him. But...I have a professor who likes to point out that on this side of the pond we don’t use spellings like “colour” or “honour”, and that sans serif is the American spelling.

Stephen Coles's picture

1. yes
2. no, the hyphen is dying
3. silly, would love to know where Bringhurst pulled this from

Stephen Coles's picture

Ahh, well, thanks to James, now I know of at least one more source for "sanserif". But it seems a strange way to go. It's not "san serif". If you wanted to combine the two words, wouldn't it be "sansserif"? Otherwise, it sounds like a gimmicky brand name.

Nick Sherman's picture

Yes, it's interesting because if I spell it the way I say it, it would be more like "sanserif", but as far as semantics goes that seems slightly off. I suppose that's not unusual though, as far as the evolution of English is concerned.

speter's picture

I would use 1 as a predicate ("That typeface is sans serif"), but 2 as an attribute ("That's a sans-serif typeface"). 3 is simply an abomination.

Stephen Coles's picture

"if I spell it the way I say it"

Then you're pronouncing it wrong. ;)

Nick Shinn's picture

I generally use "sans serif".

Is it necessary to be consistent with "old style", "type face" and "slab serif"?

There seems to be room for personal style. Bringhurst appears to favour fully-fused words such as "lowercase", but draws the line at "smallcaps".

Nick Sherman's picture

The thing about "lowercase" is that "lower" ends with a different letter than "case" begins with, so it doesn't feel as weird as "sansserif" would. I'm guessing that's the main reason Bringhurst only had one s in the middle – simply because it felt weird.

Interestingly enough, I read his book multiple times and never once stopped to think "'sanserif' feels wrong".

clauses's picture

Sans serif please. It's French dudes, have you heard of it? And this 'san serif' or 'sanserif' is really an abomination. Yes the last s in sans is silent, but the spelling remains sans.

Nick Sherman's picture

This reminds me of the Mitch Hedberg joke where he pleads that "it's time to embrace the contraction". :)

Nick Sherman's picture

I also considered the French base of the term... but could you not say now that it is also an English term, much as "cuisine" or "genre" have been adopted? And if so, do the two languages need to follow the same rules for their respective forms of the term?

James Arboghast's picture

Call them (typefaces sans serifs) linear and we can kiss the French term goodbye. So many contemporary "sans serif" fonts have curls standing in place of serifs, and some really do have serifs. The game has moved on since "sans serif" was coined. Shouldn't we be keeping pace?

"sans serif" is outmoded no matter how you spell it.

j a m e s

Alessandro Segalini's picture

San Serif in Italian means Saint Serif, he was tortured with grotesque methods.

William Berkson's picture

See this thread for discussion of the history of the term.

Nick Sherman's picture

As I continue to think about it, this tendency for people to want to contract the two words is because we (or at least those of us who primarily speak English) don't think of the term as two separate words, but more as one cohesive concept. When we (or at least when I) say "sans serif", I am not necessarily thinking of the direct translation of "without serif". The "sans" part, despite it's origin, is not a modifier of the "serif" part; they are just one concept to me.

This is also why most people just say "sans" so often, and then so many people understand it. In French, it makes no sense.
Words like "tomorrow", "whatsoever", etc (even "et cetera" is acceptable as "etcetera"), are other examples of similar terms which were melded together conceptually and eventually also in their spelling. It seems like hyphenated versions come first before the terms eventually just melt into one solid word.

I'm just trying to think of similar terms which were melted into a solid word, and dropped a letter in the process due to repetition.

paul d hunt's picture

i'm afraid i'm a bit schizophrenic in my spelling of this, most times i try to spell it out "sans serif" as there seems to be no contest about the correctness of this spelling, but i would definately prefer "sanserif" as it reflects modern usage.

nert's picture

Not that it really adds anything new here, but:

sanserif printing type without serifs. XIX. prob. f. SANS+SERIF

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Etymology, 1986

Like I said... :)

Nick Shinn's picture

It’s French dudes,

But the term was coined by Brits who liked to Anglicise their Français, e.g. pronouncing type sizes Bourgeois as "Burgess" and Non-Pareil as "Numpree". (Was Minion "Minny 'un" or "Min-yun"?) Hmm, this thread is giving me a feeling of déjà vu all over again... pretty soon will discussing how to say Univers.

Nick Sherman's picture

I'm probably in the same boat as Paul on this one... "sans serif" is the traditional way to do it, but "sanserif" actually makes more sense to me from a modern semantic standpoint.

I also agree with James that the entire term is a bit of a misnomer if translated literally. I don't know if I'm progressive enough to abandon it altogether though. It seems more likely that the English form of the term – if it hasn't done so already – will take on a new meaning which is related but different to its direct translation (more accepting of quasi-serifs and such). This kind of evolution is nothing new (eg: in French, "cuisine" = "kitchen", "matinée" = "morning", etc).

Maybe it is time to embrace the contraction.

Nick Sherman's picture

…Or maybe use "sans serif" as a direct translation, and "sanserif" in an evolved contemporary context?

Those two often overlap though… I'm thinking way too hard about this :)

Quincunx's picture

Well, I say and write it as 'sans serif', because I do see 'sans' as a modifier to 'serif'. Because, well, it is? Maybe something like we have in Dutch would be easy, we call them 'schreefloos', which (directly) translates to 'serifless'. Although that sounds kind of cheesy in English.

Saying that it should be 'sanserif' because of pronounciation, doesn't sound very logical to me. Aren't there a lot of English words which, by that morale, would need to get a similar treatment? But then again, I'm not a native English speaker, so what do I know? ;)

pattyfab's picture

sans serif, from the French. sanserif seems very awkward to me.

Brad K.'s picture

sans serif - Microsoft and the W3C use the term this way in Cascading Style Sheets in default type-family specifications. That is a *lot* of distributions of that particular usage.

I have no more problem using 'sans serif' as a two word noun, than in, say 'Zapf Chancery', and for about the same reason. I think of the single thought, and just learned to write it with a space in there.


Bera's picture

Well, I just happened to find these very interesting paragraphs today on the Typefoundry blog:

I said above that ‘sanserif’ was a mistake on the part of the OED. The headword ‘Sanserif’ in the original dictionary was quoted from a Figgins type specimen dated 1830, the only known copy of which just happened to be in the library at the University Press in Oxford, the printer of the dictionary. But when I checked the name in the specimen (which is now in the Bodleian library) I found it was SANS-SERIF. In the dictionary the quotation from the Figgins specimen has ‘San-’ and ‘Serif’ at the end and beginning of two successive lines, the ‘s’ of ‘Sans’ having been lost. When they wrote the headword the editors perhaps read the hyphen as a word-break and deleted it.

So the term ‘sanserif’ should not have existed. Except that, curiously, it did. The OED has a few later quotations showing this spelling, long before the ‘S’ volume of the dictionary was published. And by using it myself I suppose I have added a bit of legitimacy.

You can find the complete post here:

06 January, 2007
The Nymph and the Grot, an update


eliason's picture

I'm old-school - I write "sans-surryphs."

nert's picture

Just to widen things a little, this passage is directly lifted from Who Shot the Serif? on I Love Typography.

So why the word “serif”? Well, it’s commonly held that the origin of the humble serif can be traced back to ancient Rome. Before an Inscription was carved into stone the letters were first painted on. Anyone who has tried painting letters will know that one is left with slightly wider sections at the ends of the brush-strokes. The stone carvers would then faithfully carve out the letters including the flares at the end of the strokes — thus was born the serif.

However, it looks as though no-one knows much about the etymology of the word “serif”; some say that it comes from the Dutch schreef, meaning “wrote”, while other sources say the term “sanserif” actually pre-dates serif, so that sanserif on its own simply meant without serif (though that begs the question, where did the word sanserif originate?).

Nick Sherman's picture

while other sources say the term “sanserif” actually pre-dates serif

I wonder what those other sources are. Any idea?

James Arboghast's picture

sanserif seems very awkward to me.

Me too.

Maybe it is time to embrace the contraction.

Maybe it is.

4. something else?

Say it with an apostrophe: san'serif

I still think "linear" makes "sans serif" look pretty wankshaft.

j a m e s

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

Alessandro: regarding San Serif are you aware of this?

Me? I have a fictional friend in Japan, Serif-san from Osaka.

Uli's picture

Some contributors to this thread think that the compound word "sans serif" was French, but this is not correct.

While, of course, the word "sans" (= without) alone was and still is a French word, neither the word "serif" alone nor the combined compound word "sans serif" (and its variant spelling "sanserif") were used in French in the past.

For example, Philippe Schuwer's "Dictionnaire de l'édition" (Paris 1977) translates the English expression "Sans serif / Sanserif" into the French expression "Sans empattement (e.g. caractère sans empattement)." (And the class of sans serif type faces is called "les linéales" in French.)

As mentioned above by Mr. Geertsma from The Netherlands, the Dutch use the word "schreef", and the Germans use the word "Schraffe", and it is assumed (though not fully proved) by etymologists that "serif" is a word of Germanic (i.e. NOT of Romanic) origin, cognate with Dutch "schreef" and German "Schraffe".

The French formerly did not use "sans serif", but used "sans empattement". But nowadays, on French Internet font websites, the French also use the English expression "sans serif".)

James Arboghast's picture


j a m e s

Uli's picture

James Arboghast:

> Wankshaft.

If you hadn't wanked off your bizarre wanky statement

"We can kiss the French term goodbye"

there would be no need to correct your wanky statement.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

We dutch say "schreefloos"; literal trad.: serifless. Why not adapt that? ; )

. . .
Bert Vanderveen BNO

Joe Pemberton's picture

I try to use the word sans at least once daily. As in, "I'll have a tuna sandwich, sans the pickles." and "A motorcycle commute is sans traffic."

Florian Hardwig's picture

There is Sans Souci, Sans-Souci and Sanssouci, guess what – even a San Souci exists … So, let your serif sorrows go.

Careless, F ;°)

Uli's picture

Echolalia and logorrhea addicts rejoice at this "etymology" of


sans = without

krit = criticism


Tim Ahrens's picture

And not to forget the most ingenious "typographic" dialogue between Friedrich of Prussia and Voltaire.
Sorry, requires some knowledge of French to understand.

Florian Hardwig's picture

Haha, saw that one in school and forgot about it … thanks for the reminder, Tim, great!

Vertex's picture

Extract from the Etymology Dictionary:

sans serif

1830, from French sans "without" (from Old French., from Vulgar Latin *sene, from Latin sine, from si ne "if not," + adverbial genitive) + Eng. serif, from earlier ceref, perhaps from Dutch schreef "a line, a stroke," from schrijven "to write," from Latin scribere. Short form sans recorded from 1927.

BruceS63's picture

I usually say "thingies" and "no thingies." ;)

I vote for "sans serif."

Koppa's picture

In 1832, the London type firm Thorowgood referred its sans serif types as "Grotesque" (according to J. Tshchichold's Asymmetric Typography, copyright 1935). Tschichold says that by grotesque Thorowgood implied "extraordinary." However, today's Oxford dictionary gives only the expected definition of grotesque. As a type-loving fellow, I like to remember that someone once considered sans serif types to be grotesque. And grotesque is a much more interesting term than sans serif. Therefore, I spell sans serif g-r-o-t-e-s-q-u-e.

Nick Shinn's picture

Do you know this one Tim?


David Sudweeks's picture

"Can a waistband change the way men buy pants? Few people thought it possible, but that is just what happened in 1959 when Jaymar-Ruby introduced the patented Sansabelt waistband. Its unique triple zone, triple-action elastic webbing finally offered men everywhere the style they wanted and the comfort they craved."

Tim Ahrens's picture

Nick, that's a tricky one. Something like John Underwood, Kent? Or John would but he can't?

Nick Shinn's picture

It's an address.
John Underwood, Andover, Kent.

pattyfab's picture

I bet there is a flummoxed postman in Kent and a pile of undelivered mail for Mr. Underwood.

Sansabelt, love it. I totally forgot about them. Maybe they are popular in Zanzibar, where I suppose you can't get a drink (sans-a-bar).

Quincunx's picture


pattyfab's picture

Gregor Samsa? Are talking cockroaches now?

Alessandro Segalini's picture

Sansfloccinaucinihilipilification (Titin Snas) :

russellm's picture

This side of the pond, Nick, it's Andover Main ;)

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