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I’ve got a text using phrases like “an L-shaped room” and “around the bend of the L”. I’ve heard this usage in speech, but not before in writing.

Is there any standard way to indicate that a letter is being used for its shape as an illustration? Switch to sans-serif, perhaps, or enclose in quotes?

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Rather than sans-serif, I would use italic style to reflect this usage. –  user19148 Jul 5 '12 at 21:05
@Carlo_R. But if we make the "L" italic...it will no longer be L-shaped, but L-shaped ;) –  Mark Beadles Jul 5 '12 at 22:16
@Mark Beadles: This is a good point, thank you. See the better answer I have copied and pasted integrally from Chicago Manual (7.63) –  user19148 Jul 5 '12 at 22:31
Do not expect a universal standard, especially in the matter of things as these. Depending on the type of document, check which style applies and follow the respective style guide. In the absence of any such constraints, use the simplest yet most unambiguous option and stay consistent throughout. –  Kris Oct 22 '12 at 11:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The Chicago Manual of Style, 7.63 (Letters as shapes.)

Letters that are used to represent shapes are capitalized and set in roman type (an S curve, an L-shaped room). Using a sans serif font in a serif context, as is sometimes done, does not necessarily aid comprehension and, unless the sans serif perfectly complements the serif, tends to look clumsy.

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Wow. That's a long-winded way of saying "Don't change the font." And the examples don't use quotes, either. –  Andrew Leach Jul 6 '12 at 8:09
Though this recommendation is respected in all cases where it applies, outside of CMS scope sans-Serif is considered the logical option. An object is shaped like the letter, not the serif -- an S curve looks like a sans-Serif 'S' not like a Times New Roman 'S'. (Exception, 'I-beam'.) This is more widely followed in non-technical writing. –  Kris Oct 22 '12 at 11:30

The indication is in the context. Fluent English speakers are well used to using the shape of letters metaphorically. A T-junction, a Y-splitter, a U-turn, an A-frame, etc are all familiar concepts to the average AE speaker at least.

If you want to denote that the letter is being used for its shape and not any inherent meaning, you can put it in quotes, but there really isn't a need.

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Good examples. There's also: C-clamp, I-beam, J-bar‌​, O-ring, S-curve, and V-sign. Some variations include putting the letter in quotes (as you mentioned); the hyphen is sometimes omitted as well. –  J.R. Jul 5 '12 at 21:34
H-block –  Andrew Leach Jul 5 '12 at 21:58
Absolutely. I think for all the examples you and J.R. give, it's unlikely a native speaker would use or expect quotes (or a different font, God forbid!). I can just about imagine The Times pre-Churchill mentioning a "V"-sign, but such usage would just look "quaint" today. Taking an inherently "modern" letter-shape reference, I can safely say I've never ever seen a D-sub quotated or written with the D in a different font. –  FumbleFingers Jul 5 '12 at 22:25
@FumbleFingers, how about when talking about the ‘D’ part of the D-sub connector? –  J. C. Salomon Jul 5 '12 at 22:27
@FumbleFingers: I've not seen D-sub with quotes around the D, but I have seen "I" beam, etc. Just found this gem on Google books: Figure 3, Plate 26, shows a Vee block and a "C" clamp. Small parts may be held between Vee blocks and kept together by the "C" clamp. There you have it: no hyphens, with quotes around one letter, and the other letter spelled out in its phonetic form. Mind you, I don't like it, I find it ugly; I'm only saying it exists in publications. –  J.R. Jul 5 '12 at 23:18

protected by RegDwigнt Oct 22 '12 at 11:15

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