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Luckily the forum is using Georgia typeface, so both can be easily shown below:

a vs a

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I’m a little too tired to pull these together into an answer at the moment, but for someone with more energy: the term for this distinction is double-storey vs. single-storey (or double-storied, etc.); historically, it comes from how the letter evolved in two different ways in different writing traditions, which then both got incorporated into typography; and there’s a lot of interesting info on this in various threads on the typophile forums, eg here. –  PLL Mar 31 '11 at 3:27
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Cyrillic has a ton of such differences. –  RegDwigнt Mar 31 '11 at 11:02
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This is an interesting typography question, but unfortunately not an English question. –  Kosmonaut Mar 31 '11 at 21:02
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closed as off topic by F'x, Mr. Shiny and New 安宇, Kosmonaut Mar 31 '11 at 21:02

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1 Answer

Well, I suppose you can pretty much get your answer by considering how you managed to generate the two different forms in your post - a normally occurs in italic fonts, whereas a is more normal in standard print fonts.

The italic form is just easier to use in handwriting, I guess. Similar flourishes and such occur in the "print" form for other letters - many fonts have a particularly ornate lower-case g that you normally wouldn't try to reproduce by hand.

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I've seen some books for young children printed in a roman (not italic) typeface, but with italic-style glyphs for 'a', 'g' and 'y'. I can see why they did it, but I found them very odd to look at. (Actually, the font I see comments in here has this property for 'g' and 'y', but not for 'a'.) –  Colin Fine Mar 31 '11 at 11:18
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