The danger of using boldface for Chinese characters


Take care not to hard-code boldfacing or italics into your code. Chinese and Japanese characters (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Korean characters) do not suffer many types of boldface well. (The three scripts Chinese, Japanese and Korean are collectively called "CJK" scripts.) Many characters are very intricate, and making the strokes bolder can result in a big blob of ink. Consider the Traditional Chinese character which means "celebrate". Making it boldface results in which, depending on which operating system and fonts you have installed, might come out as an unreadable mess. Similarly, CJK scripts do not often use italics on screen, since they also make the characters harder to read.

What should you do in your program if you need to emphasize something? You should let the localizers choose how they want the emphasis to be performed by allowing them to specify the font face, size and attributes. That way, the localizers for Western languages can specify boldface, whereas those localizing for Chinese or Japanese can specify a larger font size or different font face instead.

Different versions of Windows cope with boldface CJK fonts with different degrees of success. Windows 2000, as I recall, used a simplified simulated boldface, which didn't handle CJK fonts very well. Windows XP, I'm told, has an enhanced boldface simulation algorithm for CJK fonts. The result is not perfect, but it is much better than what was available in Windows 2000. Windows Vista finally bridges the gap and provides separate boldface fonts for CJK. These custom boldface fonts have been tuned specifically for this purpose and (I'm told) are quite readable.

Comments (34)
  1. Puckdropper says:

    I don’t have the required fonts on my system with Mozilla, so I get question marks.  Sometimes I get square boxes.

    This is not a complaint, just a comment.

  2. George Jansen says:

    Given your interest in Germanic languages, you might’ve mentioned that the German use letter spacing for emphasis.

  3. Another interesting problem for those of us learning Chinese (or Japanese, in my case), is that the same character can have different stroke counts when displayed in different font sizes, which makes the problem of recognition all the more complex.

    That is, complex characters drop strokes as they get smaller to avoid becoming blobs.  

  4. strik says:

    @George Jansen:

    I have only seen letter spacing for emphasis on typewriter (or with computers where the author wants to emulate a typewriter). Today, it is very uncommon in Germany.

  5. GregM says:

    It seems like it should be the responsibility of the OS and font author to ensure that the font is displayed properly with bold and/or italic, and to not use them if it is impossible to do so.

  6. GregM says:

    It seems like it should be the responsibility of the OS and font author to ensure that the font is displayed properly with bold and/or italic, and to not use them if it is impossible to do so.

    [You’re saying that if somebody asks for boldface at a low point size, they should just get non-bold text? So much for using boldface for emphasis. You just replaced one problem with another. Didn’t actually solve anything. -Raymond]
  7. Chris says:

    This is exactly what firefox appears to have done with these characters. The normal and bold versions look the same on my screen (nearly unreadably small as it is – bolding it would make certainly make it unreadable)

  8. HitScan says:

    Chris: I’m also using Firefox, and it definately does something. It’s kind of a horizontal only bolding though. Look especially at the left bar and the little triangle shape of the top. Also, it’s an inky mess. :)

  9. Sven Groot says:

    It’s not just bold, italic too. The Japanese fonts on XP don’t have italic, so the system simulates italic by slanting the characters, which looks horrible. Not that the XP fonts need much help with that; since they don’t support ClearType and have no hinting they look pretty awful at small sizes anyway.

    Vista’s new Japanese font (called Meiryo) solves these issues by having real italic and bold, and even the base font is such a huge improvement in legibility that it’s not even worth comparing them. I copied Meiryo to my PocketPC too. Seeing that awesome font on a 192DPI display with ClearType enabled is typographic heaven! :)

    It should come as no surprise that this font is rather big: the two files that make up all variations of the font (regular, italic, bold and bold italic) together are 15MB!

    The downside of course is that it’ll be a long time before third-party apps (and webpages) start using this font, especially since it’s only available on Vista (unlike the C-fonts (Consolas, Cambria, Calibra, etc.) Meiryo isn’t included with Office 2007.

    Oh, and in Japanese, words are sometimes emphasised by writing them in katakana; because katakana characters are far more "blocky" than hiragana and (most) kanji, they stand out.

  10. GregM says:

    Raymond, yes, you got it.  If the choice is only between unreadable bold text and readable plain text, I’d pick readable plain text.  Of course, I’d prefer readable bold text.

    In short, this isn’t something that we should have to worry about.  There’s absolutely no way we can know what font is going to be used, assuming that we’re good citizens and respect the user’s font choice, and whether or not making that font bold or italic will result in readable text.  So that means either that bold and italic are simply not usable at all, which is just ridiculous, or it leaves it to the OS and the font writers to make it so that everything degrades gracefully when bold or italic doesn’t work.

    [It’s still something you have to worry about. It means your program cannot blindly use boldface for anything important because it will either be (1) unreadable or (2) indistinguishable from regular text. -Raymond]
  11. Regular readers may recall the following five posts:

    Sometimes, uppercasing sucks
    A localizability…

  12. Dean Harding says:

    GregM: Raymond is right. Presumably, you want the text bold for a reason, and if the system just ignores that and displays it non-bold, then (from my point of view as the developer) it’s just as useless as unreadable text. From the point of view of the user, perhaps, it’s "better", but either way, the app needs to change so that I have SOME way to emphasize my text (maybe a different colour instead?)

  13. Regular readers may recall the following five posts:

    Sometimes, uppercasing sucks

    A localizability…

  14. steveg says:

    if only RGB was signed, then you could specify extra black RGB(-255,-255,-255) and the whole bold thing would be moot…

  15. Norman Diamond says:

    What should you do in your program if you

    > need to emphasize something? You should let

    > the localizers choose how they want the

    > emphasis to be performed

    Yes.  Some markup languages have markups specifying "emphasise the following text" instead of saying how to emphasise it.  They really need "emphasis style 1", "emphasis style 2", etc.  I’m not sure how many they need, but it’s probably not advisable to depend on more than 2.

    > by allowing them to specify the font face,

    > size and attributes.

    No.  The way to emphasise a word or phrase or sentence, where the wording has been written in a standard style, is to put a dot next to each character.  An alternative way to emphasise is to use a different alphabet from what is usually used in writing the word or phrase (for example when katakana is used for a standard Japanese word it does stand out).  But dots are most immediately recognizable, like underlining or italicizing Italian characters.

    Thursday, September 14, 2006 2:28 PM by Sven Groot

    > Not that the XP fonts need much help with

    > that; since they don’t support ClearType

    Smoothing works at sizes above 18 or somewhere around there.  I didn’t notice if that’s ClearType or older style smoothing.  Of course there aren’t many places where you want to display text that big anyway so yes we usually don’t get smoothing.

    > Vista’s new Japanese font (called Meiryo)

    > solves these issues by having real italic

    > and bold,

    Yeah but not dots ^_^  (Not automatically anyway).

    The base font is considerably wider than MS UI Gothic and even ordinary MS P Gothic and MS Gothic, so less information fits in the same amount of screen space.  To me this isn’t an advantage.  Some dialog boxes in Vista have a mixture of UI Gothic which hasn’t been smoothed and Meiryo which displays fewer words than used to be displayed in the same space.

  16. Dean Harding says:

    They really need "emphasis style 1", "emphasis style 2", etc

    (X)HTML has <em> and <strong> which usually corresponds to italic and bold respectively. I agree that’s the best way for the application to do it.

    > No.  The way to emphasise a word or phrase or sentence, where

    > the wording has been written in a standard style, is to put

    > a dot next to each character.

    Well, that’s the way to do it for CJK. I assume it would come under the heading of "attributes"

    > Yeah but not dots ^_^

    A font designer could do that in their font.

    I believe one of things Vista does with it’s ideographic fonts is that the "italic" version is the same as the non-italic version – there’s no slanting applied to it. You could just as easily design a font where the bold version, instead of being bold, had dots next to each character.

  17. Dean Harding says:

    Vista’s new Japanese font (called Meiryo) solves these issues

    > by having real italic and bold

    Actually, I just noticed this as well. Like I said above, Meiryo has a "real" italic version of the font, but it’s specifically NOT slanted. Not sure what they do with the bold version, though.

    Also, from Norman’s post:

    > Smoothing works at sizes above 18 or somewhere around there.

    This is because the smaller sizes are actually specified as bitmaps, rather than outlines. It is possible to specify ideographic fonts as outlines, even for complex characters at small sizes, but it’s not as easy as just providing a bitmap version.

    The other thing is, of course, ClearType doesn’t make as much sense at large sizes anyway. I mean, if we all had 600 DPI displays (I wish!) a quarter-inch character would be 150 pixels high and we wouldn’t even need ClearType at all.

    Just another reason I find this obsession with ClearType so annoying – it’s only a temporary solution anyway!!

  18. Dewi Morgan says:

    [Win2k FF here, "regular" size, CRT monitor, both characters came out clearly, one bold, one not.]

    Sometimes you must force the display to comply with your specification, even at the expense of readability. In "Print preview" this is clearly critical. Graphics programs, too.

    But in most components, style (any font attribute) is far less significant a loss than content (the affected word).

    Basic accessibility is something any programmer ought already "worry about". Many systems can’t display our ideal font attributes: text-only monitors, screen readers, systems without suitable fonts, autotranslated pages, mono screens, "small vs large fonts", non-BiDi-aware, mobile devices, etc ad nauseum.

    So, since it’s physically impossible to "localise" a program for all systems on which it may be used, I disagree with (my probably-incorrect reading of) the original post, where it claims that it should be left completely to the localisers.

    Instead, I feel that the localisers should at best be able to give hints: XHTML’s ’em’ tag is a good example: it means "this ought to be emphasised, where possible", and the client (and ultimately, the end-user) should have the final say on how and whether it is emphasised, *emphasised*, <b>emphasised</b>, EMPHASISED, [b]emphasised[/b], or <font size="+1">emphasised</font>.

    These are intuitive concepts to all good web programmers, but may seem alien at first to GUI programmers, and to people accustomed to graphic design for print, as these have traditionally placed layout and style as pre-eminent and immutable, and content as just "that stuff that’ll replace the lorem ipsum".

  19. Norman Diamond says:

    Thursday, September 14, 2006 10:?? PM by Dean Harding

    [Norman Diamond:]

    >> No.  The way to emphasise a word or phrase

    >> or sentence, where the wording has been

    >> written in a standard style, is to put

    >> a dot next to each character.

    >

    >Well, that’s the way to do it for CJK. I

    >assume it would come under the heading

    >of "attributes"

    I think it should be the heading of "emphasis".

    >> Yeah but not dots ^_^

    >

    > A font designer could do that in their font.

    Double the size of the font file just for dots?  In fonts that can be italicized or emboldened, extra storage is needed because italicizing isn’t just slanting and emboldening isn’t just changing more pixels from background colour to foreground colour.  But dots for emphasis are displayed just as dots next to an unchanged character.

    > Just another reason I find this obsession

    > with ClearType so annoying

    But ClearType brings enormous improvements in the rendering of characters in fonts that have only simple characters.  (For example if you render an English word or a Spanish digit in Tahoma then it’ll be ClearTyped but in MS Gothic it wouldn’t be ClearTyped (except maybe at huge sizes).)  ClearType works a lot better than older style smoothing in these cases.

    The reason I dislike Meiryo is that the characters still have to be fattened and fewer of them fit in the available space; I do like the ClearTyping but think the "tax" in order to get it is too high.

    <i> i </i>

    Hey, what’s that slanty i foreign character doing there?

  20. J. Edward Sanchez says:

    Faux boldface is an abomination, and should *never* be used. The same goes for faux italic/oblique, faux small caps, faux subscript and superscript, faux condensed and expanded, and so on.

    If emphasis is needed, the application should substitute a similar typeface that does possess the desired weight and style, rather than resorting to the horrors of algorithmic generation. ("Similar" may be determined via PANOSE or a similar method of classification.) This is not an ideal solution, and it introduces its own problems, but it’s better than the current situation.

    The application should be able to choose whether to do this substitution itself or to have the OS do the substitution automatically.

  21. Xan says:

    > But ClearType brings enormous improvements

    Having the left side of a character red is a big improvement ?!

    The sad fact is that we’re seeing an increase of applications which force ClearType even if the user choice is different (Word is not the only one) :(

  22. required says:

    "In Chinese, emphasis in body text is supposed to be indicated by using an "emphasis mark" (着重號), which is a dot placed under each character to be emphasized." (from Wikipedia)

    IOW you shouldn’t be bolding the damn things anyway.

  23. GregM says:

    The operative word was *should*.  I wasn’t talking about "what we have to do to work around the failings of the OS and font designers".  I was talking about how this *should* be solved.

  24. Xan says:

    > The sad fact is that we’re seeing an increase of applications which force ClearType even if the user choice is different (Word is not the only one) :(

    Just installed IE7 RC1. Another one.

  25. Mike Dimmick says:

    Xan: a lot of us keep complaining about the ClearType issue. I like ClearType – on a monitor which can display it well. On a cheap CRT monitor like those I suffer along with at work, it’s terrible.

    As for italics, Vista RC1 has a setup error where it installs two copies of Trebuchet MS Bold Italic and no Trebuchet MS Italic. When called upon to do Trebuchet MS Italic, therefore, GDI (et al) fake one up by slanting Trebuchet MS – which looks awful. Vincent Connare went to the trouble of drawing it, so it would be nice if it was included. I have reported this bug but as a Customer Preview Program member, I can’t see the status of it.

  26. ender says:

    Mike Dimmick: have you tried the ClearType tuner (either the powertoy, or the web-based activex)? I found out that it’s possible to make ClearType look good with it even on bad CRTs (and some LCDs, where the default ClearType settings look fuzzy).

  27. Xan says:

    > Xan: a lot of us keep complaining about the ClearType issue.

    No, I hate it on LCDs with DVI inputs. Simply for me the font aliasing is less a problem than blurry character.

    I guess it’s a matter of taste, and it’s for that reason that I’d like to see applications respect my choice..

  28. David Conrad says:

    @steveg:

    If only RGB was complex, then you could specify the angle of the black RGB(0+80i, 0+80i, 0+80i) and then the users could view it through polarized glasses and identify the bold characters just by tilting their heads….

  29. Mihai says:

    All "decorations" should be considered localizable. This includes font family, font style, color, size, underscore, etc.

    The localizer should be able to complete remove it and replace it with other mechanisms: emphasis marks, quotation marks, upercasing, etc.

    See here for some examples:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuation

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boldface

  30. Norman Diamond says:

    Friday, September 15, 2006 4:41 AM by Xan
    [Norman Diamond]
    >> But ClearType brings enormous improvements
    >
    > Having the left side of a character red is a
    > big improvement ?!

    If ClearType’s default configuration and your screen’s dot layout produce such an unfortunate effect, Microsoft has a page that you can view in Internet Explorer to adjust the ClearType settings.  I wonder why the same tool can’t be executed locally under Windows XP, but anyway, it’s there.

    If all ClearType options yield such an unfortunate effect then of course you have to turn off ClearType on your screen.

    I’ve used a few dozen screens that benefit from ClearType as intended.  If I run across one that yields the result you have, I will be glad that ClearType can be disabled on that machine…

    > The sad fact is that we’re seeing an increase
    > of applications which force ClearType even if
    > the user choice is different (Word is not the
    > only one) :(

    … well, sometimes anyway.

    Friday, September 15, 2006 12:38 PM by Mike Dimmick
    > I have reported this bug but as a Customer
    > Preview Program member, I can’t see the
    > status of it.

    You’re probably not missing much.  If you could see the status and the status would be closed without any explanation, it wouldn’t matter much, right?  Or it might be closed as “not reproduceable” because it’s 100% reproducible only outside of Microsoft.

    [More likely, the description in the bug report was not detailed and specific enough to permit somebody unfamiliar with the problem to reproduce and recognize it. Thank you for jumping to conclusions. -Raymond]
  31. Norman Diamond says:

    [More likely, the description in the bug

    > report was not detailed and specific enough

    > to permit somebody unfamiliar with the

    > problem to reproduce and recognize it. Thank

    > you for jumping to conclusions. -Raymond]

    Even when there are screenshots and sometimes minidumps.  Thank you too for jumping to conclusions.

    [A screenshot and a minidump aren’t much help in diagnosing Mike’s setup problem because by the time you take the screenshot and minidump, setup is already over. For what it’s worth, I have Trebuchet MS Italic installed on my machine just fine, so there must be something else going on. -Raymond]
  32. Dean Harding says:

    If I run across one that yields the result you have, I will be glad

    > that ClearType can be disabled on that machine

    But that’s precisely the problem – it’s becoming harder and harder to "turn ClearType off on that machine". So many of Microsoft’s application refuse to respect the global setting and have their own "internal" setting.

    Word 2003, for example, requires a registry hack to turn ClearType off in the "Reading Layout" mode, even if it’s off system-wide.

  33. Xan says:

    > I’ve used a few dozen screens that benefit from ClearType as intended.  If I run across one that yields the result you have, I will be glad that ClearType can be disabled on that machine…

    Oh my. I. DON’T. LIKE. IT. On any monitor. Anywhere. I tried it on my boss Apple 30". My laptop. My wife’s laptop. My job desktop. My home desktop. Never liked it, characters are always blurry, difficult to read and straining on the eye.

    It’s subjective as I said (I don’t like it) and I get tired to see applications outsmarting my choice for that setting. It’s worse than unpaid "taxes". If an app doesn’t support large characters or fast user switching, I can always think about a compromise between quality and price and I can get away with "I paid X$ for this and it doesn’t support feature Y,.. but maybe if it did it would have been priced higher".

    I can’t get away with "I’m paying X$ for outsmarting my decision and forcing an useless feature I don’t like".

  34. Mike Dimmick says:

    ender: thank you, I’m aware of the tuner – others may not have been, so thanks for posting it. No setting looks right on the (poor) monitors I use at work. I’m very happy with it on this LCD at home.

    Raymond, if you want to track it, this was a completely clean install on an empty disk – Beta 2 had been installed, but I deleted the partition and recreated it during Pre-RC1 (5536.16385) setup. I did this again when moving from Pre-RC1 to RC1.

    It happened on both Pre-RC1 – where the second copy of Bold Italic was installed with the name of trebucit.ttf, which suggests that the wrong source file was referenced in building setup – and on RC1 (5600.16384) itself, where somehow there were two copies of trebucbi.ttf listed. That is, both copies of Trebuchet MS Bold Italic in the fonts folder indicated that the font file name was trebucbi.ttf. Of trebucit.ttf was there none. I’m running Windows XP right now (dual-booting with RC1, XP is on a different physical hard disk) so can’t look in the registry.

    Copying the font file from Windows XP fixes the problem.

    [Okay I see it, and the problem is fixed on build 5718 not that that helps you any. -Raymond]

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