y oh y

Wrestling with the lowercase y and its devilish tail

Janina Aritao
Jan 4 · 4 min read

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly simple construction of the lowercase y.

A thick diagonal stroke meeting a thin, and longer diagonal stroke — looks pretty straightforward, right?

But I underestimated this bony little creature. I spent quite a bit of time on it in this project, learning how to draw a text typeface.

Questions swirled in my mind. Is the tail too long? At what height should the two meet? What angles?

Since the eyes trump geometry in type, there was a lot of eyeballing involved in my efforts.

In an early version of my character set, the “y” looked like this:

Aside from the stem having a tentative-looking weight, the transition from stem to tail did not seem natural.

The great James Edmonson offers some guidance in drawing a “y” in his wonderful and super helpful Type School series:

“Lowercase y is a bit like a v and a j made sweet, sweet love, conceived, and gave birth to a y.”

So I tried marrying my v and j, but the baby just didn’t look right.

Karen Cheng, in the first edition of Designing Type, says “the terminal on the lowercase y should relate to other terminals in the typeface.”

She used Clarendon as an example in the book, encircling the terminals in the letters a, r, c, j, and g.

(Here they are, re-typed and screenshot using because I don’t know if I have the right to show an image from Karen’s book.)

And so looking at my first y with the terminal team:

Still wonky.

With this iteration I also received some feedback on the lack of consistency in my terminals:

And so I fixed up the terminals. And wrestled some more with the y.

I checked out Times New Roman and Le Monde Courrier for clues:

The j and y tails were very similar to each other, also reflected in the nose of the r. The ears of the g were doing a different thing. What I learned here is that the formula is not exactly the same for every typeface. The typeface’s character will show you the way.

When I looked more closely at the construction of my terminals. In the g and r, there was a straightness. It had the appearance of a semi-geometric leaf. Straight lines plus curves. Perhaps I could clone that signature element and graft in to the tail of the y?

Et voila:

A little better. Not perfect, but growing into adulthood.

It turns out, my “y” wasn’t working out because I hadn’t landed on the right shapes for the terminals yet, and hadn’t figured out the relationships between them.

Clarendon’s set had a strict uniformity, which, based on the personality of my letters, did not seem applicable in the same way.

I also learned that the terminals are not of the copy-paste variety. While serifs and stems can be copy-pasted, terminals have a certain logic between them that grows out of the typeface, somewhat organically, as you draw, and re-draw.

Alphabetype

Insights and discoveries from type design students, observers, and explorers.

Janina Aritao

Written by

Writer • Communication Designer • Type Explorer | janinaa.com

Alphabetype

Learning type design is a crazy adventure. So here’s where we can share our explorations and excavations, and learn from each others slips and successes. Spill the beans, we’d love to hear your story.

Janina Aritao

Written by

Writer • Communication Designer • Type Explorer | janinaa.com

Alphabetype

Learning type design is a crazy adventure. So here’s where we can share our explorations and excavations, and learn from each others slips and successes. Spill the beans, we’d love to hear your story.

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