This weekend while you are reading your copy of the Declaration of Independence, you may wonder why the Founding Fathers liked to write the letter S to look like an F. It’s called a “long S,” and it’s purely a matter of style. This particular style came into fashion during the Renaissance. If you look closely, you’ll see that it doesn’t really look like an F. An F has one, a long S doesn’t. (OK, sometimes the S may have a little nub sticking out to the left, but not a full-fledged crossbar.)
Everyone who wants to be stylish knows that there are certain rules one must follow. For the long S, it must never appear at the end of a word, or else all the other fashionable writers will point and laugh at you. On the other hand, you are allowed to pair a long S with a short S in the middle of a word, if you are into that sort of thing. But when you do, the long S always comes first.
As with other kinds of fashion, the rules changed over time. For a while there was rule that called for the long S when it came before a B or a K. Then a younger, radical generation took over and insisted that everyone must use a short S before a B or a K. Finally the slackers gained control and we stopped using the long S altogether.
We still play around with letterforms. That’s why in some fonts a lowercase G looks like the number 9 with a flat spot, while in other fonts it looks like an over-under arrangement of ovals connected by a line, and with a little beak. We’re so used to it that we hardly even notice. Some day, our descendants will wonder why we made things so difficult to read.