Why does the typed 'a' have a different prototype than the written 'a'?

When we learn to write the lowercase ‘a’, it is basically just a single loop and a line. However, in the typeface world the lowercase ‘a’ has a fancier prototype than the written ‘a’. Why is this so?

P.S. The lowercase ‘g’ is often much fancier in type, but the standard is swinging towards matching the written form. Perhaps the typed ‘a’ will eventually follow this route?

Well, for starters, you’re coming from a false premise - we do have two different styles for lowercase ‘a’ and ‘g’ but these aren’t split between written and typed forms – they both appear in different typefaces. The fancier ‘a’ appears more frequently in serif fonts (e.g. Times) whereas the simpler ‘a’ appears more in sans serifs (see Futura).

The letter A comes to us from the Greeks via the Romans. Both forms of the lowercase are a derivation of the capital A. The double-story ‘a’ is a throw back to how the Greeks wrote the letter (in handwriting). The simpler single-story ‘a’ we most frequently write comes to us via the roman handwriting style (known as ‘rustic’). This letter is called the ‘Latin Alpha’. It suits cursive/script writing hence is easier for us to write. Note, it also appears in the majority of italics, which mimic handwriting.

Why we’ve hung onto the Greek form is up for discussion. Perhaps it was used as a more ‘formal’ form of writing. In any case, legibility studies frequently come to the conclusion that the greek double-story ‘a’ wins hands down. Why? Who knows. Probably ingrained culture as much as anything.

As to whether the double-story ‘a’ will disappear, I suspect anything is possible but it’s doubtful in any near future. Many typographers have attempted to redesign/reinvent letterforms, to simplify them. However, we tend to fall back on what we know and what we think reads more easily. The double-story ‘a’ is still vastly more popular in type design due to legibility and the ability it gives the designer to create more individuality within a typeface.


One thing I forgot to note on legibility. The double-story ‘a’ may be more legible because it makes it a distinctive letter form that will not be confused with ‘o’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ at a quick glance.

When I was in grade school learning my letters, I was taught to write the lowercase ‘a’ the fancy, double-story way, with even a little curly tail on the back. Anyone else?

I wasn’t taught to write them that way, but as a teenager I went through a phase of doing so. It didn’t stick, but the barred 7s did.

Heh, me too. I’ve also given up writing my lowercase 'e’s like a backwards no. 3. But I’m happy to say I never dotted my 'i’s with hearts.

My sister taught me to read before I started kindergarten, and I taught myself to print by copying the form of letters in story books. By the time we were formally taught to print, it was already ingrained habit.

I’ve never unlearned this habit, and I can offer a good reason that the more standard way is preferred: When I take my time, my printing is very tidy, and includes serifs and all. However, when I am taking quick notes, my “a” and “g” become problematic. The “a” becomes difficult to distinguish from an “e,” because bottom “storey” doesn’t get properly closed, and tends to close the top bit. My “g” is rendered: g. When I am taking hurried notes at a meeting, it may wind up closer to:** O,o**

I’ve always written the barred 7 for some reason. Think it’s something my brother taught me when we were very young (and he doesn’t do it anymore).

My "g"s don’t have a loop; they look either like a big “s” that dips below the line or a curvy “j” with no dot.

I also handwrite the “a” so it it has the “top” over the circle part, like on a type writer. My “g” reamins aout the same. Funny I just notice the “g” when I type it is plain but when it posts the to board it is fancy :slight_smile:

When you handwrite everything in caps and small caps, A’s and G’s aren’t a problem,

I love the idea of calling the fancy “a” as a double-story.

I’m not sure when I started scribing it that way but I can’t remember not doing it. Even when I was in college (pre-computer note-taking time), and I was furiously taking hand-written notes, I would write my a’s with its double-story.

When I was trying to be fancy, I would also scribe a double-story “g” but I’m just not as consistent with that.

True, there are different typefaces, but I find it odd that the “fancy” A is so commonplace in fonts (and that fonts featuring the fancy A are so commonly used) but hardly anyone hand writes it that way. Anyhoo, thanks for the rest of your response. Perhaps the fancy A is more legible hands down because it is more distinct from other letters, as opposed to the single-loop A which, especially when hastily hand written, can be more readily mistaken for a sloppy O or lower case D.

Especially in small fonts, the Latin Alpha is easy to confuse with the lower-case o. This is annoying and causes a slight loss of legibility, methinks. It’s like the inherent ambivalence of lower-case l and capital I in sans-serif.

Nope. I was taught the plainer A. I learned a little calligraphy as an adult, though, and the double-story is a popular component of many different ‘hands’.

I do the double story ‘a’ but mostly it ends up looking like a backwards ‘c’ because I write fast and have messy handwriting. My 'g’s also look like 's’s that have dipped below the line.

Heh. As a teenager, I did the backward 3 as an e, the barred 7, and circles above the i, (never hearts! blecch!), and I still put a slash through a zero unless it’s part of a larger number.
I was learning to print in the early 70s, and I don’t know if it was that time period or just my school, but there was No. Variation. Allowed! in forming letters. You couldn’t even do the a in one stroke, like a d with a bent top. It had to be the ‘crook’ first, then the ‘belly,’ then the tail as a separate stroke.

Let me just say that this is really annoying when grading physics problems that have both an E and an epsilon in them.

Do you slash your Zs?

I use the simple form of a and g when I write (assuming I’m not writing rapid notes, in which case they become squiggles that vaguely look like the correct letters and the words become clear based more on context than letter forms!)

I bar my 7s and Zs (both upper and lower case), and will add a double diagonal bar to the upper case Z if I need to distinguish it from a lower case z (usually in a math problem). Likewise, I make lower-case x kind of curly, upper-case might get a double diagonal, and my t’s have a serif if they are a variable (but not when spelling a word). I have gotten into the habit of writing a V with a bar across it (upside down A) when the variable is volume, in order to distinguish it from velocity. All of these habits come from taking a ton of math and engineering classes - sometimes you end up with a bunch of things that are hard to distinguish if you don’t get creative!

The way I explain it is that my as have hats.