It is hard to remember that fonts originated in handwriting, but occasionally reminders, like ligatures, pop up. “Ligature” literally means to bind or tie up, so when two letters are tied together in script, it is called a ligature. Medieval scribes combined letters that shared some part, so they could write faster and conserve space on the page. For example, rather than write fi, they combined the tittle in the i with the end in the f to make the symbol at left. Other common ligatures combine vowels that make one sound like æ. When printing began in the mid 1400s, typesetters continued to use joined letter forms to mimic the look of manuscripts. (Heard of the thorn? Learn more about other glyphs that fell out of use with moveable type here.)
In the early 1900s, when typewriters became fixtures in the modern office, common ligatures were not included on the keyboards. To save space, typewriters included the alphabet, numbers, basic punctuation, and few additional keys. When san-serifed fonts (like Helvetica and Arial) became common in the mid-1900s, ligatures fell even further out of fashion.
Some fonts continue to include ligatures. which can be found in the Special Characters section of programs like Microsoft Word. Today, ligatures are sometimes encountered in books because desktop publishing software, like Adobe InDesign, include ligatures as an automatic option in typesetting. More often, ligatures are used in brand names. For example, when a brand name like Encyclopædia Brittanica includes a ligature, it’s technically misspelled if one does not include the special letter form. Want to learn about other symbols that have fallen out of use? Read about the ampersand here.
How often do you see ligatures? Do you think we should use them today?