Today, in the digital arena, a font is simply a complete set of characters for a given style: In InDesign, for example, a font can be set as any size from a tenth of a point to 1296 points. Below I am showing you the font used for my books, named Contenu Book (which I designed), showing some of the 563 characters available in it. Notice the three styles of numbers (among other things).
This is an old-fashioned, oldstyle font with a small x-height and small descenders that is very comfortable to read.
Click to enlarge.
Hundreds of characters
However, hundreds just barely begins to cover the characters needed for typesetting. Typewriters were limited to about 88 characters, although that varied a little. We had the QWERTY keyboard and then those same keys with the shift key held down. The shift key was called that because it physically shifted the entire set of letters—lifting them high enough to use the second set available on all the metal keys.
Many of you still think that these are all the letters we need. This is not true—not even close to being correct. In fact, we need access to several hundred characters, as professional typesetters. Even in English we are really limited. But first, we need to mention one of the major differences between PC and Mac.
7-bit ASCII: the PC limitation
When Bill (Gates) and the crew designed DOS, they knew nothing about typesetting. As a result, they were very pleased to offer 7-bit ASCII. ASCII is just an acronym for a regulating group setting a standard numbering order for letter characters, but the key here is 7-bit. Remembering your digital code, 7-bit is 128 choices. So, with 7-bit ASCII, PCs had 128 characters.
Good, you say. That is much more than the 88 found on a typewriter. And, in fact, these machines were used only as glorified typewriters. In truth, there wasn’t much glory there, but that’s another story.
8-bit ASCII: the Mac limitation
When the Mac came out, it supported 8-bit ASCII. We Macophiles have used this for years to lord it over our poor restricted buddies using PCs. However, even the 256 characters of 8-bit ASCII do not even come close to what is needed for typesetting. It does enable us to set type professionally in most European languages—sorta.
8-bit ASCII is essential for desktop publishing. Without all 256 characters, there are many things that are a real pain. As a PC user, you will run into that pain very quickly. There are many special characters that you will need to use all the time. On a PC, these characters are called upper ASCII characters and are only available by holding down the Alt key and typing four numbers on the numerical keypad. The chart on the next page shows all 128 upper-ASCII characters. Those from 129 and up require the Alt+four-number routine. The number is in the gray bar to the right of the character the character. The code in the middle column is for the Mac keystroke: O = Option, S = Shift.
This is not to say the Mac is much better. However, all these extra characters are available with the Option key. You do have to memorize the shortcuts. But, Option-8 for a bullet is much easier to remember than Alt+0149. And, Option+Shift+8 for the degree symbol makes visual sense, at least. Many Mac keystrokes are easier to memorize. In fact, you can usually just add what you need as you type, like in résumé.
Plus, once you learn the double-stroke combinations to add accents, they are simple to remember: Option-n, then n gives you ñ [ntilde], for example. Option-e, then any vowel will add the acute éáó [eacute, aacute, oacute]; Option-u adds the umlaut (or diaresis) ü [udiaresis]. In fact, if you have a strange letter that looks like another letter, try it with the Option key. For example, the ø [oslash] is just Option-o.
Here’s a chart showing Mac and PC keystrokes
Remember, for the PC you usually need to hold down the Alt and type four numbers. A bullet •, for example is Alt+0149.
Click to enlarge, or an easier to read, free, letter sized version of the chart above is available as a PDF at Scribd.com.