Confused by “a” and “o” 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?”

That was essentially the question in a recent email I got from my esteemed former colleague and Illustrator guru Mordy Golding (see his Web site or his blog).


Well, it happens that although we English speakers kind of like to use this short typographic form of an ordinal, the Spanish and Portuguese equivalents are considered much more important in those languages. Spanish ordinals are gender-specific, so instead of a gender-neutral approach (like “2nd” for “second”) they have gender-specific “a” and “o” endings for masculine and feminine nouns (like “2a” and “2o” for “segunda” and “segundo”).

Because these masculine and feminine ordinals are considered pretty basic in Spanish, they are standard characters in the basic MacRoman and WinANSI codepages. So they’re present in any standard western font with a full character set, even in “PostScript” Type 1 fonts.

Fast forward to OpenType. Existing fonts are getting converted to OpenType. Even if the foundry doesn’t add a full set of Latin ordinals (which would include more than just the ones for English, by the way!), the “obvious” thing to do is to make these two glyphs accessible via the “ordinal” layout feature. (In Adobe’s case, most of our converted fonts did not get further ordinals added, though many did.)

Now, even though the glyphs may be accessible via an “ordinals” feature, people who are using these glyphs are keying in the characters directly anyway, without applying OpenType layout features to get to them. After all, they are keyboard accessible and always have been (at least, with Spanish and Portuguese keyboard layouts). Plus, putting them in the “ordinals” layout feature is confusing to most other folks. Finally, the traditional position of the “a” and “o” is lower than that usually seen for, say, English. So there are some interesting issues here.

So, what next? We are making some minor changes in how we handle this in our font features, but the main visual effects will remain the same, and many of our existing fonts will still have only the Spanish/Portuguese ordinals. (Edited this paragraph July 26th 11:45 pm PST to correct the description of what we’re doing. Sorry for any confusion I may have caused.)

Feedback welcome, of course. Especially from Hispanic typographers and type designers.

(Added July 7th 11:30 am PST: my colleague Christopher Slye hunted up his email summary of *exactly* what we’re planning to do in future font revisions. I reproduce it here for those who are interested in the painful details.)

> [1]
> In any font with both ordinals and a/o.superior, where those forms are
> not identical:
> – In ‘ordn’:
> sub a by ordfeminine;
> sub o by ordmasculine;
> – In ‘sups’:
> sub a by a.superior;
> sub o by o.superior;
>
> [2]
> In “majuscule only” fonts (all caps or cap/smcaps) which have ordinals
> with minuscule forms (with or without pre-existing, identical
> a/o.superior):
> – Duplicate (as necessary): ordfeminine -> a.superior, A.superior
> – Duplicate (as necessary): ordmasculine -> o.superior, O.superior
> – In ‘ordn’:
> sub [A a] by [A.superior a.superior];
> sub [O o] by [O.superior o.superior];
> – No letter substitutions in ‘sups’
> – Leave ordfeminine and ordmasculine out of features
>
> [3]
> In “majuscule only” fonts (all caps or cap/smcaps) which have ordinals
> with majuscule forms (with or without pre-existing, identical
> a/o.superior):
> – Duplicate (as necessary): ordfeminine -> a.superior, A.superior
> – Duplicate (as necessary): ordmasculine -> o.superior, O.superior
> – In ‘ordn’ and ‘sups’:
> sub [A a] by [A.superior a.superior];
> sub [O o] by [O.superior o.superior];
> – Leave ordfeminine and ordmasculine out of features
>
> [4]
> In regular fonts which have ordinals with minuscule forms (with or
> without pre-existing, identical a/o.superior):
> – Duplicate (as necessary): ordfeminine -> a.superior
> – Duplicate (as necessary): ordmasculine -> o.superior
> – In ‘ordn’ and ‘sups’:
> sub a by a.superior;
> sub o by o.superior;
> – Leave ordfeminine and ordmasculine out of features

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the information Thomas! As always, GREAT explanation.

  2. Reed says:

    Thanks for covering this issue. I’ve been having trouble in a similar area for a long time. What I’ve always wanted to do is add OpenType features like ordinals and ligatures to my paragraph styles so that my less InDesign-savvy colleagues can apply the attributes to text without having to know where to apply them or to remember to do so for each instance. But, for example, the a and o ordinals and the Th ligature (in Adobe Pro fonts) appear when I apply a style like this to a whole article, making my idea unusable. I wish that there were some way to either define which characters are affected by the OpenType features or to “remove” some characters from a font within InDesign. Hmmm…maybe I’ll send an Adobe feature request on adobe.com.

  3. Thomas Phinney says:

    There are plenty of things that should not be applied globally at the paragraph level, including ordinals and fractions, or else you’ll get unexpected results, at least with some fonts (and potentially later on with newer versions of fonts that didn’t give you trouble the first time).

  4. Teri Pettit says:

    Thomas,Could you explain more fully what is meant by Christopher’s notations “sub x by y” and “duplicate x -> z”?Does “sub x by y” mean “substitute y for x”? After “sub x by y” happens, does the font contain something called x with the former appearance of y and no longer contain anything called y, or does it contain something called y with the former appearance of x and no longer contain anything called x, or is neither interpretation correct? (Assuming sub stands for substitute, I figure something is going away, I just can’t tell what. There are four entities involved, the slot named x, the slot named y, and the letterforms in those slots.)Similarly, after “duplicate x -> y”, does the font contain entities named both x and y, with equal appearances corresponding to the old appearance of x? Or if not, what does it contain?

  5. Thomas Phinney says:

    Terri,Yes, “sub x by y” means “substitute y for x”This is OpenType feature code in the format used by the Adobe FDK for OpenType, FontLab and DTL FontMaster. x and y are glyphs in the font. This code is executed by the application displaying the font, if the appropriate OpenType layout features are applied – in this case ‘ordn’ or ‘sups’ which are the layout features for ordinals and superscripts, respectively.”duplicate x -> y” is a description of a production step in making the font, and is saying that the glyph “x” is going to be duplicated to the new glyph “y”.I hope that helps clarify things. If not, well, you can always give me a call. :)

  6. Thomas Phinney says:

    Note that I made some important edits to the original post today in describing what we’re going to be doing in future fonts. (The affected paragraph has an appropriate note in italics like this.)

Comments are closed.

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Thomas Phinney

Adobe type alumnus (1997–2008), now VP at FontLab, also helped create WebINK at Extensis. Lives in Portland (OR), enjoys board games, movies, and loves spicy food.

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