Figuring It Out: OSF, LF, and TF Explained

Numerals (or figures) can take various forms. The figure style you choose ought to be appropriate to the project you are working on. Readability is key. But which style is best for which purpose? There are two main forms, oldstyle figures (OSF) and lining figures (LF). Each can come in tabular and proportional widths. See some examples above.

Oldstyle Figures

Old-Style figures are most appropriate in running text.Oldstyle figures are Arabic numerals varying in height and position. Some sit on the baseline while others descend beneath the baseline. The 6 and 8 are commonly the tallest figures and the 3,4,5,7, and 9 descend below the baseline, while the 0, 1, and 2 are roughly the same height of the lowercase letters. This feature allows them to harmonize with other words on a page of text without becoming a distraction to the reader. So oldstyle figures are most appropriate in books or any running text. Oldstyle figures are also known as non-aligning figures, text figures or oldstyle numerals.

Lining Figures

Lining figures are most appropriate in texts where alignment is crucial.Lining figures are derived from oldstyle figures. They are a modern style with all figures at a common size and position and even height as the uppercase letters (but sometimes smaller and lighter than the capitals). Today, most fonts use these as default. Lining figures sit on the baseline as opposed to oldstyle figures that appear at different heights and positions. They optically align along a height line and the baseline. The best applications are business reports, forms, tables or any place where alignment is crucial. Lining figures are also known as regular numerals or titling figures.

Tabular FiguresTabular figures

Tabular figures are mono-width, they align vertically and thus appear in documents that compare numerical data in columns. Each figure shares the same width and space on both sides.

Proportional FiguresProportional figures

Proportional figures are different in their total character width. They are spaced to fit together more like letters. For instance, the figure 1 is very narrow like the letter l and takes up less width than the number 6. Because their spacing appears more even, these figures are best in texts and headings where columnar alignment is not necessary.

Now that you know the differences between the two figures styles and their two widths, you know what to buy for your particular needs. Fortunately, some foundries (like FontFont) make it simple: every figure style that has been designed for a particular typeface is included in each purchasable package. OpenType, though, makes it even simpler. Most OpenType fonts include all available figure styles within a single font. So there’s no switching between fonts to get to the right figures. Read more about the conveniences of the format on our new OpenType page.

See also: Office FontFonts

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25 Comments:

  1. When would tabular oldstyle figures be the right choice? At first sight, it seems they’re a redundant combination.

    Posted by John Muir on Apr. 4, 2008
  2. Great question, John. Tabular oldstyle is certainly the least common variant. I guess it would be appropriate if you wanted to create columnar data that was a little more ornamental or “old style” as it were. It’s more of an aesthetic choice in that instance.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Apr. 4, 2008
  3. I’ll ask the technical question – how do I make my application use each type of figures?

    Posted by Cameron Bales on Apr. 4, 2008
  4. Tabular oldstyle might work well in a restaurant or pub menu, for the prices. Or for tournament sports scoresheet columns — darts or golf league. Some situation where you want an old-timey or decorative feel but need numbers aligned in a grid.

    Posted by Russell Gorton on Apr. 4, 2008
  5. Thanks for the great article! It never quite stuck with me why oldstyle figures vary in height and position, but reading that they “harmonize with other words on a page” has made everything clear.

    Posted by Dan Sauve on Apr. 4, 2008
  6. Thanks for the concise yet very informative post! This is one of the daily things we tend to overlook, thanks for explaining it :)

    Posted by Agos on Apr. 5, 2008
  7. Excellent article! I was wondering, could you perhaps recommend some inexpensive fonts for personal use? I already have the Adobe Type Classics for Learning, but I want more! ;)

    Posted by Dan Villiom Podlaski Christiansen on Apr. 5, 2008
  8. A couple of weeks ago I uncovered my old Macmillan log tables from the 70s and the question about “tabular oldstyle” made me go and fish them out of the recycling bin. As I suspected, the bodies of the tables are all in tabular oldstyle. I suppose this could have been deliberate, to give readers a visual cue as they wandered through the blocks of otherwise undistinguished figures. Looking at the dates for this book though, it’s a 1970 reprint of an 1908 edition so I wonder if oldstyle figures might have been the only option a hundred years?

    Posted by Michael Davies on Apr. 5, 2008
  9. When I design a more traditional-looking publication and use oldstyle figures, I will use their proportional variant in the text, and tabular variant in the table of contents. If there are other tables, too, especially ones with lots of numbers, I will probably go tabular lining.

    Posted by András Puiz on Apr. 5, 2008
  10. Meta Pro might have been a better choice for illustrating the differences here. I believe its tabular lining numerals have stylistic differences (like a foot on the “1″) to compensate for the uniform spacing.

    Posted by Maurice Kessler on Apr. 5, 2008
  11. i found this on delicious- thanks so much for the brief intro- i actually learned something great- and will chew on it for the next days…

    Posted by marko on Apr. 5, 2008
  12. I’ve been told that lining numerals should also be used when the surrounding text is all in capitals. But I imagine that this applies only for “simple capitals”, and that for small-caps, which don’t align, old-style numerals are better. Any thoughts?

    Posted by Amar on Apr. 9, 2008
  13. Thank you all for your comments and personal additions to the article.

    @ Cameron Bales: That depends on which application you’re using. If you’re in Adobe CS apps or Quark 7, it’s easy to access figure styles from OpenType fonts via the OpenType menu. In other applications, you’ll want to use PostScript or TrueType fonts, each one of which has a different figure style. That’s what the “TF” or “OSF” means in some font names.

    @ Russel Gorton : That’s right. I for myself like to use TOSF usually for smaller listings with no more than ten rows. Finally all these tips in my article are not laws and the correct use depends on the designer and content.

    @ Dan Villiom Podlaski Christiansen: The Adobe Fonts definitely are a good start. You can see our personal recommendations in the Staff Picks list. You will also find some very good hand-picked OpenType fonts on our new OpenType page.

    @ Amar: I totally agree. You also should use lining figures in an uppercase surrounding.

    Posted by Ivo Gabrowitsch on Apr. 10, 2008
  14. SKAGGS — attract:engage:evolve » Blog Archive » Old Style and Lining Figures Explained referenced this article:

    [...] wonder what form of numerals (or figures) is correct for the situation at hand? This great tip from FontShop explains it all. Extended typefaces will typically include both oldstyle and lining [...]

  15. Anatomy of a print design « scattershot genius; referenced this article:

    [...] light-hearted mood in keeping with the subject of the play, but I also needed a font that had oldstyle figures, elegant italics, and a full set of ligatures. Adobe Caslon fit the bill as a full-featured font [...]

  16. BySoAndSo » Oldstyle Figures, Lining Figures, Tabular Figures referenced this article:

    [...] has a nice little blog post on their blog The FontFeed about understanding when to use Oldstyle Figures, Lining Figures and [...]

  17. I’ve been taking some courses in typography, and I am being taught that if old style figures are not available in a font (as in the “Mother Teresa” text example above), that I should drop the point size of the lining figures by about 10% so that they look better (i.e., not so prominent).
    Any comments?
    This is counter-intuitive to me; I can see the difference, though slight, in the weight of the face.

    Posted by cbGrab on May. 15, 2008
  18. Your intuition is correct. Adjusting the pt size is not a good idea because you’re always going to get a weight differential. How noticeable it is depends on the typeface, but in general the lighter weighted numbers will be as much (if not more) as a distraction as the tall numbers.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on May. 15, 2008
  19. This isn’t exactly relevant, but — the recipe example should have aligned the numbers flush right and the words for each ingredient flush left, with a nice em space between the two columns. This was usually done in cookbooks, back in the day. The big cooking mags — Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Food and Wine — still do.

    And, as long as I’m here… while reading text set in a serif face, I still come across numbers, especially dates, set in lining figures but with a lowercase letter l in place of the figure 1. The two kern differently, and the letter is often taller and lighter than the figure. I think that’s a holdover from, again, back in the day, when many typewriters didn’t have a number 1. We were taught to substitute the letter. Are most of the people inputting copy over 50?

    Posted by Chris Purcell on Feb. 3, 2009
  20. I came across “SF” the other day while browsing the Arial Family page on Linotype (http://www.linotype.com/145867/arial-family.html). For some fonts, an “SF” variant is provided in addition to the normal font.

    At first I could not figure out its meaning, but guessed it has something to do with the figures. Then I tried the fonts out with numerals, paying attention especially on the widths of “1″.

    So far I only know SF works like monospaced numerals – which means, “Arial Regular” has proportional LF but “Arial SF Regular” has TF – but anyone knows what it actually stands for?

    (Have guessed something like “standard figures”, but am not sure yet.)

    Posted by Tony Ng on Sep. 1, 2009
  21. In some documentation SF is used for Small Figures. Are your Arial Small Figures non-proportional and smaller than regular figures?
    If I remember correctly latex uses SF commands.

    Posted by Henk Gianotten on Sep. 5, 2009
  22. There’s also a Times SF. I doubt this abbreviation has to do with the figures: Arial vs. Arial SF. Maybe a special version optimized for screen? SF for Screen Fidelity … just a guess.

    Posted by Florian on Sep. 6, 2009
  23. I learned a lot from your post. You explained really well. Nice work.

    Posted by Jessica Stage on Jan. 17, 2014
  24. I have a question regarding this, I can’t find the answer anywhere. When I’m working with Asian or Arabic language in InDesign and apply a certain GREP style to Arabic numbers and Latin characters in text, the numbers always stay in oldstyle figure, no matter what I do, I can’t make them to become lining figures. Do you know what causes this problem? Could it be the different composers? (Japanese and World-Ready)? Is there any solution any of you know of?

    Posted by Zita Major on Feb. 10, 2014
  25. Arial? Really?

    Posted by GCRaya on Mar. 12, 2014

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