What Is the Difference Between Cursive, Script, Italic, and Oblique?
Angled letterforms can be powerful devices to emphasize text. Carefully used, they can create a sense of movement and draw the eye to specific ideas. But how do you go about searching for the perfect typeface to add that subtle tilt? Precision is key. Knowing what the style you’re after is called will help you sort through the vast amount of typefaces available. If you’ve ever run into terms like “cursive”, “script”, “italic,” and “oblique” and wondered what sets them apart, bookmark this article. We’re about to clarify it all.
Script and Cursive
Script is a general term used to describe writing done by hand. This includes joined and unjoined characters that mimic our handwriting. You can expect elements like varying stroke widths reflecting pressure on writing instruments and natural ligatures that arise from writing quickly. Many Script fonts also incorporate a level of slant to imitate our own angles when writing by hand.
There’s a wide range of Scripts, going from casual, quirky handwriting to formal, perfectly balanced typefaces full of flourish.
Cursive is a close synonym of Script, but is typically identified as a subset. You’ll often see Cursive used to describe typefaces with connected letters. This makes etymological sense, too: the word “cursive” is derived from the Latin verb currere, or run. To form letters quickly, you avoid lifting your writing instrument too much. Therefore, characters are constructed in as few strokes as possible.
The terms Script and Cursive are often used interchangeably, but the first is generally understood as the larger family of handwritten type.
Italic and Oblique
While often confused with Script and Cursive, Italic points to a much more specific style. To understand what sets it apart, let’s look at a little history.
Back in the early 1500s, upright Roman typefaces dominated publications. Just like Humanist and Old Style typefaces had marked a shift towards humanism, early Italics embraced even more informality, flair, and movement. Venetian printer Aldus Manutius and type designer Francesco Griffo introduced this novel type family in a 1501 edition of Virgil. They had been inspired by a script style developed in the Vatican; this type is commonly known as “chancery hand“. Modern italics have tried to revive this humanist spirit and give each letter a distinctive character.
Interestingly enough, Roman and Italic typefaces back then were used separately. Today, we see many font families integrating complementary Roman and Italic variants, almost downgrading the latter to a supporting role.
Now that we’ve looked at Italic typefaces more closely, it’s important to set them apart from Obliques. If you “mechanically” add slant to a Roman, you’ll get an Oblique. Type designer Mark Simonson describes them as “a slanted version of the roman (upright) style, usually with optical corrections for the distortions that happen to curves and stroke thicknesses”.
When you take this slanted look to another level and incorporate unique, handwriting-related letterforms, you’re looking at a true Italic. Type designers also play with narrower proportions and special characters that set Italics completely apart from their Roman relatives.
Precision is key
You’ll see terms like Script, Cursive, Italic, and Oblique get tossed around interchangeably. However, there are some essential differences involved, especially when it comes to Italics and their distinctive historical roots. Construction is another aspect to consider here: Cursive letters tend to rely on a single stroke, while Italics, Obliques, and the larger family of Scripts are usually composed with several strokes.
What are some other technical typography terms you’d like to learn more about?