Introducing Alternate Characters, Ligatures, Stylistic Sets, Contextual, etc

Table of Contents

OpenType fonts can include more characters like alternate characters, ligatures, swashes, numerals, fraction, stylistic sets, contextual alternates, and small caps. Please see how to use opentype fonts.

The characters we encounter in a typeface aren’t always the only alternatives available to us. Type designers frequently develop alternate characters to expand the range of typographic options accessible through “standard” styles. This article examines the most popular and useful kinds of alternates.

A single font file may contain OpenType features that allow us to switch between variants of characters, which are frequently provided as distinct sibling families like Montserrat and Montserrat Alternates. OpenType is a type of font (and font format) that allows the designer to access extra capabilities in a font.

OpenType provides a wealth of possibilities for adding typographic power to your designs. There are so many features within the font with which you may utilize them: From swash characters that add flourish to your display type like Boheme Floral Fonts, to fractions that allow the readable assignment of recipe ingredients; from proper small caps that prevent uppercase abbreviations from shouting at the reader, to intentional control over different numerals flavors; an understanding of OpenType is perhaps one of the most essential tools a designer can have.


A ligature joins two or more characters into a single glyph, which is generally a more pleasant reading experience. The “fi” ligature, for example, links a lowercase “f” with a lowercase “i” into a single character to avoid the shoulder of the f from clashing with the dot of the i.

50Fox Studio what is ligatures

The “fi” ligature, for example, is a common ligature. “Discretionary ligatures” or “rare ligatures” are a separate category for less-used historical ligatures (or ligatures created for stylistic reasons), such as the connected “st” glyph with a hoop.

50Fox Studio discretionary ligatures


The term “swash” refers to a decorative variant of a certain character, usually seen in script typesfaces, which has more elaborate and ornate flourishes than the usual form.

50Fox Studio swashes

Swashes are most often used on the upper left of uppercase letters, as well as ascenders and descenders in lowercase letters. Swashes should add to your design without compromising legibility, so keep that in mind when working with them. Take a “less is more” approach if you think it will help. Surprisingly, far too many sign-makers ignore this guideline…

50Fox Studio swashes fonts
The first line is incorrect because the swashes on the "E" in the middle of each word clash with the letters surrounding it. The second line, which uses only swashes for the first letters of each word, looks much better.


The numerals or symbols in a typeface represent numbers. OpenType allows you to choose from a variety of sorts of numerals designed for different purposes.

50Fox Studio numerals


When correctly rendered as symbols—such as “¾” rather than “3/4″—fractions are far more legible, so it’s better to use OpenType for this accurate rendering whenever possible.

50Fox Studio fractions

Stylistic sets

Stylistic sets, sometimes known as style sets, are collections of alternative glyphs that allow the user to replace many related glyphs at once (although a style set may only contain one glyph replacement). Remember that even if there appears to be just one alternate in a set, for example, a single-storey “a,” it will change each instance of that character to use the variant form. Stylistic sets can exist in any font file.

50Fox Studio stylistic set fonts

Contextual alternates

Contextual alternates are similar to ligatures in that glyphs are intelligently swapped depending on their neighbors, but they differ in that they’re never combined into single shapes. This may be used to create perfect connections between characters in a script or replace characters that might inadvertently clash.

With that in mind, contextual alternatives might appear to be style sets. The first distinction is that stylistic collections have no “intelligent” awareness of context. Second, rather than utilizing a choice of sets, the glyphs and instructions that drive contextual alternates are all confined to one “on” or “off” switch.

50Fox Studio contextual alternates fonts
In the first example, observe how the “b” opening stroke consumes a lot of room and appears to push the figure too far away from the “o'. With contextual alternates turned on in this second example, an alternate “b' symbol is automatically employed instead, resulting in more pleasant spacing.

Small caps

Small caps are uppercase letterforms intended to be used in conjunction with lowercase text. What’s the difference? All-caps text might be difficult to read and appears to “shout” at the reader; small caps, by contrast, appear more natural in the context of the text.

Small caps are advised after three or more characters of uppercase text. For example, there’s usually no need to use small caps for something like “US,” but a longer acronym, such as “UNESCO,” will look better if it’s more inline with the paragraph genre. It’s generally a good idea to add extra tracking to all-caps type.

50Fox Studio small caps fonts

If a word has already been capitalized, you may choose whether to make all characters in small caps (known as “all small caps”) or only the lowercase letters (known as “small caps”), leaving the “U” in its standard uppercase form.

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