The Font of the Baskervilles

The Hound Font of the Baskervilles?

We’ve all learned, particularly in the last few years, to be cautious about believing what we read. Some people (though not nearly enough of us) have even learned to be cautious about what we see on television.

But let’s just confine this discussion to what we read (either in dead-tree media or on the screen). Could it be that the choice of typeface (font) affects whether we believe that the text is true? That claim itself is surely something to be skeptical of.

And yet…

It might be correct.

Let’s remove Comic Sans from consideration, as no one can take it seriously, and see what we can see. A recent two-part article in the New York Times posed the question “Are there certain typefaces that compel a belief that the sentences they are written in are true?” So they performed an experiment… and the answer was… yes, and Baskerville turned out to be the font most likely to make the reader believe that what they are reading is true—to a small but still statistically significant extent. And it turns out that we can’t quite dismiss Comic Sans out of hand, as I would like, since it is discussed (though suitably disparaged) in the article. If you’re interested in statistics, especially statistical significance, you can find a suitable discussion of the effects of Baskerville, Comic Sans, and the other four in the two parts of the Times article. The second part also includes a substantial excursion into the fascinating life of John Baskerville, the namesake of the typeface.

You may also want to read a couple of follow-up articles, include this one from and an essay with the cute name of The Pentagram Papers. (If the allusion doesn’t mean anything to you, it just means that you’re too young for these Boomer references. Don’t worry about it.)

Finally, let me point out that the ubiquity of the Macintosh and Windows in today’s world has blurred the once-important distinction between font and typeface. I’ve given up fighting that battle.

Categories: Books, Linguistics