Segmenting Words and Characters

Fixed and proportional fontsYearning for kerningItalic textLigaturesDot matrix printoutsKorean documentsLight text with broken characters (Humanist fonts, Garald fonts, Real fonts, Didon fonts, Mechanic fonts) — Handwritten dataArabic documents

The next steps in the OCR process after the line segmentation, word and character segmentation, isolate one word from another and separate the various letters of a word.

In most cases, separating words is not that hard. There’s always a distinct white space between them. (Which means that a word often includes a punctuation symbol.)

Word spacing

Word spacing

Word spacing

The horizontal space between words in a line is called “interword space”. Which leads us to the phenomenon of justification: typographists adjust the interword space and the interletter space to achieve justification! Note how the space between the letters inside a word (“interletter space”) on the 4th line is bigger than the space between two words (“interword space”) on the 3rd line…!

Interletter space           Justified Latin-script document with varying word spacing

Farsi (or “Persian”), the language of Iran that uses the Arabic alphabet, adds extra spaces between the words to align the text in columnized newspapers, magazines etc.

Justified document in Farsi with widely varying word and character spacing

Arabic solves the same problem in a different way: the space between the words is fixed but the shape of some letters can be elongated (“tatweel” or “Kashida” words). (Farsi does not use tatweel!)

Kashida - tatweel for the justification of Arabic texts            Kashida - tatweel for the justification of Arabic texts

Typical for the Arabic script is that (virtually) all characters inside a word are joined. To apply justification in columns etc., you can either make the characters inside a word longer (as the Arabic language does) or add extra space between the words (as Farsi does).

Separating characters is a different matter. There are many elements besides justification that play a role. (In extreme cases, justification creates spaces between individual letters that may be bigger than the space between two words on the same page. We just illustrated as much!)

When the segmentation breaks up each image or zone of interest into small units for recognition, each character “cell” ideally corresponds to a single character. But a segment can just as well contain a group of connected characters… or only part of a single character. In that case, the segments have to be broken up further in several characters or various discrete segments have to recombined to recognize a letter!

Scanned image with degraded, touching characters

Scanned image with degraded, broken characters

Mind you, character segmentation does not apply when the OCR engine uses word recognition instead of an artificial neural network! That OCR technique was designed to recognize full words at once, it “decodes” the words without a prior segmentation of the word images into characters. (That’s why its specific strength lies is in the recognition of degraded images where characters for instance touch (“ligatures”) or are broken.)

If the characters have the same width (“fixed pitch”), character segmentation is easy. The issue gets more challenging when the width of the letters depends on their shape (“proportional pitch”), when kerning, italic text and touching characters (“ligatures”) occur, and when dot matrix fonts with characters composed of clouds of isolated dots are used.

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Fixed and Proportional Fonts

With fixed fonts, each character of the typeface has the same width. An “i” takes up as much horizontal space on a line as a “w”, as is the case in this sentence. The next character always starts at a fixed distance. Fixed fonts are also called “monospaced” fonts.

Fixed font             Fixed font           Text line with a fixed font

Documents produced with old typewriters for instance have a fixed pitch. That’s because the carriage of the typewriter moves a fixed space each time you hit a key: each “cell” that an individual character occupies has the same space.

Electric typewriter

This does not mean that the character shapes themselves have the same width. Hence, the empty space around the actual symbol may vary somewhat. The character blocks (composed of the glyph and the surrounding space) by necessity cover the same surface!

Scanned image of document with fixed font

Segmenting such characters is relatively easy: each character occupies a fixed space on a line. (The unit of measure “characters per inch” or “cpi” indicates the “pitch”, it measures how many characters are printed on a horizontal inch.)

Proportional fonts allow the characters of the typeface to have a different width. A “w” will take up much more horizontal space on a line than an “i”, just the way you see it here. Virtually all fonts you find in newspapers, magazines and books are proportional. So is the body text of this web site.

Proportional font          Scanned image of document with proportional font

Comparing the “i” and “w” letters is an easy method of detecting whether a font is proportional or fixed. Here’s another quick test: when the font is fixed, any two lines with the same number of characters on each line are equal in width. The same two lines in a proportional typeface can vary radically in width!

Walter and Willy Wonka went to Iowa for wet water.
123456 123 12345 12345 1234 12 1234 123 123 123456
iiiiii iii iiiii iiiii iiii ii iiii iii iii iiiiii
wwwwww www wwwww wwwww wwww ww wwww www www wwwwww

Walter and Willy Wonka went to Iowa for wet water.
123456 123 12345 12345 1234 12 1234 123 123 123456
iiiiii iii iiiii iiiii iiii ii iiii iii iii iiiiii
wwwwww www wwwww wwwww wwww ww wwww www www wwwwww

Fixed fonts can be used to produce tabular material, proportional fonts can’t: they’re used when exact line lengths are required! (Each time, I put three spaces, not tabs, between the words.)

Fixed and proportional fonts            Electric typewriter

The unit of measure “cpi” (for “characters per inch”) indicates the “pitch”, the number of typographic characters that fit on each inch of a line of printed type. The measurement applies mainly to fonts that have the same width for each character (fixed fonts). Proportional fonts (with varying character widths) can only have an average cpi.

Segmenting proportional characters is more difficult, because it all depends on the shape of the individual symbol! The “cells” — the correct technical term is “body” — that each character occupies vary in surface.

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Yearning for Kerning

In printed texts, some letter pairs have more space between them than others because of their shape and slate. Pair kerning automatically reduces the space between such letter pairs to enhance their appearance. Otherwise, they would be spaced too close or too far apart to be aesthetically pleasing.

Kerning          Kerning pair          Kerning

While the first “WA” and “LT” are non-kerned letter pairs, the second “WA” and “LT” are clearly kerned. The limb of one character projects over-under the body or limb of the other!

The letter pairs “AV”, “AW”, “LT”, “VA” and “WA” are striking examples — well, all you have to do to figure that out is to read this sentence!





The various character “cells” overlap each other, making the characters difficult to segment.

Scanned document with kerning

Kerning is often confused with tracking. Dead wrong! Kerning influences the esthetic space between specific letter pairs, tracking determines the space between all the letters in a word. More about character spacing in a short while…

Kerning and tracking of fonts

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Italic Text

And the same goes for italic text! Segmenting the characters vertically won’t do here either, because of the slant of the italicized characters.

Italic word

Scanned image of italic text

There are technical terms for this: typographists speak of “slope”, that’s the angle of the stems and extenders of the letters. Most (but not all) italics are sloped to the right at something between 2 and 20 degrees.

One character “invades” the cell of another. The part of a letter that extends into the space of another is called “kern”.

Kern of the italic letters f and j

In many typefaces, without having to be italic (or even bold!), the “j” letter has a kern to the left and the “f” letter has a kern to the right.

Kern of the italic letters f and j in the normal typestyle          Kern of the italic letters f and j in the bold typestyle

Posture” describes the angle of character’s slant to the base line. Typefaces can have an upright and italic posture. (Typographists actually distinguish “italic” and “oblique” posture, but it’s of no relevance in OCR...) In Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic typefaces (where the writing direction is left to right), the common angle of slanting nowadays is right too. (The backward angle is used very rarely, mainly in cartography.) The left angle is however normal in Arabic and Hebrew scripts with the right-to-left writing direction.

If history is your thing, it was the printer Aldus Manutius (1450-1515), a friend of the philosopher Erasmus, that invented the italic typestyle in 1501 and had the resulting typeface — called the “Aldine” — patented for exclusive use for many years.

Bembo font as used by printer Aldus Manutius
Aldus’ font Bembo – very close to the Latin script

Aldine font on printer Aldus Manutius
Aldus’ italic font Aldine

Manutius, the first printer to mass-produce books with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, did it to make books smaller in format — preferably in pocket format — and thus make scholarship less expensive. (Manutius published the first “octavo” volume in 1501, today we would call it a “pocket book”… Eight leaves of a book are created from a standard size sheet of paper. In modern common usage, an octavo size book is 8-10” (20-25 cm.) tall.)

Printing mark of printer Aldus Manutius           Portrait of the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius

The italic letters were not used to emphasize specific words are they are today but were used for body text that takes less space on a horizontal line than normal letters do. That way, you can print a book with less pages, a factor of importance in those days…

Page of book printed by Aldus Manutius in the Aldine font

His democratic effort was inspired by the “humanistic” Renaissance handwriting style of the poet Petrarch (Giacomo Petrarca) in Northern Italy around 1350. By the year 1400, that script was so widespread throughout Italy that the first Venetian printer Manutius and his punchcutter Fransesco Griffo (real name: Fransesco da Bologna) used it towards the end of the 15th century when they developed a Latin printing alphabet. This explains why cursive letters are still called “italics” in the English language…

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We speak of “ligatures” when successive characters touch. The OCR software needs to segment them, but where does one character end and the next begin? Still, the example below shows how powerful state-of-the-art OCR software can be when it comes to recognizing touching characters… (And we’re dealing with a proper name here, a context where linguistics are of no help!)

Ligature composed of 9 characters

Know that ligatures can be natural — think of the letter pairs “fl” and “fi” — or accidental. Natural ligatures are always joined, even when the text is crisp and clear.

Ligatures with the letter f

Ligatures with the letter f

Many ligatures were totally abandoned. Nowadays, you’ll only see them in the opening titles of historic movies and costume drama — think Jane Austen movies and the likes… Or they’re used purely decoratively, for effect.

The “st” ligature was the last ligature to be abolished. It won’t surprise you that we found these examples mainly in ads for financial institutions: the banks and insurance companies may have caused the financial crisis, but they still want to be seen as respectable and conservative enterprises!

A word with ligatures           Ligature with the letters c and t           Ligature with the letters s and t

Old-style ligature with the letters t and h

Old-style ligature with the letters s and t

One of the Latin symbols, the ampersand or “&” symbol, originally was a ligature of the letters “et”, the Latin word for “and”. Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, gets credited as the inventor of this character. In his days, the ampersand looked like the image on the right — I show which strokes of the pen he used to write the character. Some italic shapes still remind us of the Latin origin, but the now common stylized shape is a later development.

Ampersands           Ampersands           Ampersand symbol in various typefaces           Ampersand symbol of Marcus Tullius Tiro with pen strokes

Until the 20th century, the ampersand functioned as the last and 27th letter of the alphabet (…X Y Z and &). The sequence “… and &” was read as “and per se and”, which means “and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and”. Over time, this expression was shortened, slurred to “ampersand”.

You get accidental ligatures when letters are joined because you’re dealing with a low-resolution fax that contains blurred text, because the document quality is very low, because the scanning is too dark, because the character spacing is reduced etc.

Ligatures in badly scanned document

Ligatures in fax

Tracking (also called “letter spacing” or “character spacing”) refers to the manipulation of “interletter space”, the space between the letters in a word. Tracking is used to tighten or loosen text — you can do it too in your word processor! (Unlike “kerning”, tracking influences the space between all characters in a word.)

Interletter space           Sentence with varying tracking

Tracking is measured in points. With positive or “loose” tracking, the space between the characters in a word is increased, with negative or “tight” tracking, it is decreased. Mild tracking is OK, bigger tracking gets noticed by the user and diminishes the readability of a text.

Control panel for font tracking

When the character spacing is too reduced, character recognition becomes impossible. (Word recognition is better equipped to handle such cases than the neural networks are!)

Interletter space

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Dot Matrix Printouts

Dot matrix characters are the opposite case. A single character isn’t composed of one but of several “clouds” of pixels. It’s usually the dryness of the ribbon that determines how bad things are… In other words, the OCR doesn’t have to segment individual speckles, but recompose them to form a symbol!

Dot matrix printed document (draft - 9 pin)

Let’s be accurate in our terminology: with “draft dot matrix printing”, also called “9 pin” dot matrix, you can still distinguish the individual dots that compose a symbol. That’s the special case we were just discussing. With “letter quality dot matrix printing” (also called “NLQ” or “25 pin” dot matrix), you can no longer distinguish the individual dots that compose a symbol. The printing quality approaches the quality of a laser printer.

Dot matrix printed document (near letter quality (NLQ) - 25 pin)

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Korean Documents

Korean documents can be tricky for a similar reason: see how “fragmented” the Korean symbols can be…

Korean document with fragmented symbols

None of these extreme segmentation problems occur when you’re dealing with the other Asian languagesChinese and Japanese. These languages are derived from picture writing. They are written with thousands of distinctive characters called “ideograms” or “pictograms”. Every character has exactly the same amount of space, no matter what its shape may be. There are no spaces between characters; the characters which make up multi-syllable words are not grouped together. When reading Chinese for instance, you have to work out which characters belong together!

Chinese document

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Light Text with Broken Characters

Occasional, minor fractures rarely perturb the recognition, but totally broken characters can be a different story. Similar to the dot matrix printouts, these characters have to be recomposed first!

State-of-the-art OCR software is equipped with specialized routines to read light text with broken characters — we’re now talking about word recognition of course…

Scanned image with broken characters

The “contrast” describes the difference in thickness between the thickest and thinnest points of the curved strokes. The “stress” (or “axis”) is the angle at which contrast occurs: it is the imaginary line that runs through the thinnest parts of the character’s loops.

Axis in typography               Contrast in typography

(Don’t mistake “axis” for “slope”. “Slope” describes the angle of inclination of stems and extenders of letters. Italic letters are sloped to the right. But as the Footlight font above shows, letters do not have to be italic to have contrast and stress!)

Letters with contrast            Text line with heavy contrast

Letters with contrast imitate the thinning of the stroke in round letters of Roman origin. The “axis” of a letter was the axis of its stroke, the angle of the pen used to create the letter.

Italic text with heavy contrast (Bedini font)

Italic text with heavy contrast

Contrast is best observed by looking at for example the letter “O”. Note if the bottom left is thicker than the top left, and the top right is thicker than the bottom right. If this difference exists, the letter has diagonal stress. Stress usually ranges from vertical to a somewhat back-slanted diagonal: in old-style typefaces, the axis is inclined to the left, while in transitional and modern types it is generally vertical… If the two halves of the “O” are a mirror image of each other, with the sides thicker than the top-bottom, the letter has vertical stress.

Vertical and diagonal stress in typefaces

If the top and bottom of the “O” have the same thickness as the sides, there is neither contrast nor stress. Fonts are called “monoweight” where there is no visual contrast between the thick and thin strokes of a letter form.

Monoweight letters             Text with monoweight letters

Broadway — you ’ve all seen this font before — is a typeface whose “character” is defined by extreme contrast: some strokes are very thick, other are very thin.

Broadway typeface with heavy stress

Historically speaking, the stress changed as new font styles were developed. Over time, the axis shifted from far left to horizontal. The reason for this is that font designers were less calligraphic as time passed, less inclined to imitate handwriting with their print fonts…

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Humanist fonts

Strong left axis, weak to average contrast (about 3/1), strong calligraphic influence.

Stress of the Centaur typeface (Humanist font)

Stress of the Guardi typeface (Humanist font)

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Garald fonts

Moderate left axis, weak to average contrast (about 3/1).

Stress of the Garamond typeface (Garald font)

Stress of the Bembo typeface (Garald font)

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Real fonts

Vertical or almost vertical axis, strong contrast (about 5/1).

Stress of the New Baskerville typeface (real font)
New Baskerville

Stress of the Janson typeface (real font)

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Didon fonts

Vertical axis, very strong contrast (about 7/1), oval shape, high letters.

Stress of the Bodoni typeface (Didon font)

Stress of the Bauer Bodoni typeface (Didon font)
Bauer Bodoni

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Mechanic fonts

Vertical axis, weak contrast (about 2/1), square shape, thick strokes.

Stress of the Clarendon typeface (Mechanic font)

Stress of the Serifa typeface (Mechanic font)

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Small wonder that the thinnest parts are the first to go when the scanning is too bright…! A typeface’s stress learns you which parts of a character will be missing first. You get “hairline fractures” when only the thinnest parts of the loops are broken. “Hairlines” are the thinnest part of a glyph — other than the serif. Darken your scans by adjusting the brightness and you can avoid these fractures!

Letter H with heavy contrast             Bad scan with broken hairlines on the characters

(The thinnest lines you can draw (and print) with software — smaller than a mm. — are called “hairlines” too. They’re not of the receding kind, mind you!)

Palette to select thickness of vector lines

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Handwritten Data

Handwritten documents are not read by OCR systems. It takes specialized “ICR” (“Intelligent Character Recognition”) software to recognize handwritten data.

There are several reasons for this. The human hand is too frivolous, unsteady to make the recognition possible. The pressure applied by the human hand on the paper is unequal; the “printing quality” is very variable. Handwritten symbols yield fundamentally different images and shapes, and it takes specialized recognition techniques to recognize them.

Handwritten text

And that’s not all. There are actually two types of handwritten data: “handprinting” and “cursive handwriting”. Block letters and handwritten digits such as the number ‘1000’ above are isolated: it’s as if they were “printed” by a human hand. Such “handprinting” can be read with dedicated ICR software as you find in form reading applications.

Form with handprinted data

(The stuff that OCR deals with is called “machineprinting” — which means material from offset printing presses, laser, inkjet, typewriters, and matrix printers etc.)

But when you write full words, the letters are always slanted and connected. Cursive handwriting can’t be segmented — all characters touch. Where does one character begin and where does the next start? Which extra loops are added to connect the symbols?

Cursive handwriting

It takes highly specialized routines to recognize this kind of data. Such software reads words, rather than characters, and only shows up in high-end applications where you read a limited number of words on forms, financial documents etc. Such a system is for instance trained to read, say, the words “one”, “two”, “seventy”, “hundred”, “thousand” etc. on checks, but not any word.

If you own a tablet or a PDA, say, an HP Palm handheld, on which you enter instructions and data with a stylus on the screen, know that this is not the same thing! The handwriting recognition software of such devices tracks the movement, speed and pressure of the stylus moving across the touch screen, not an ink trace that your hand leaves on a piece of paper.

Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) with a stylus         Tablet computer with a stylus

Not to mention that the “tuneable” solutions require extensive training of your handwriting while other systems force you to use a particular, unnatural handwriting style. The user is then forced to employ a fixed set of reference strokes if the PDA software is to recognize any characters!

Admittedly, styluses have gone out of fashion thanks to Steve Jobs, who resented them personally and didn’t want to hear of them for iOS, the operating system behind the iPhone smartphones and the iPad tablets, but let’s investigate the technology involved anyway for a second…

Have a quick look at this popular “shorthand alphabet” used on Palm devices to see how unnatural the strokes can be: the “A” is actually a inverted “V”, the symbols “F”, “T” and ‘4’ are only portions of the normal Latin symbols. These characters are simplified so that you can draw them in a single stroke with your pen-sized stylus! (And the characters are written one by one — no recognition of cursive handwriting here!)

Shorthand alphabet for handwriting recognition

The heavy dot just indicates the starting point — you’re not expected to draw a dot somehow on the touch screen! The system tracks the starting point and the direction of your hand’s movements: certain characters are stylized, simplified so that they can be easily drawn. See for instance the “K” and the ‘4’ symbols!

The letters and digits are written on a different writing area of the touch screen: it’s for instance the only way to distinguish the letter “O” and the digit ‘0’. A “shift code” is created on the touch screen to indicate whether the symbols that follow are uppercase or lowercase characters — which explains why you don’t find any lowercase characters in the chart! (The uppercase characters are easier to write and bigger — that’s why they were chosen.)

Actually, we could go on for another while: special strokes are used for the punctuation marks and for special symbols such as Euro (€) and dollar ($), the accents are created separately etc. But the conclusion is clear by now: all of this has to do with the pressure your stylus applies to the touch screen. And none of it would work in the optical world where ink leaves a trace on the paper that gets picked up the scanner.

Scans of text written manually on paper are very different in nature from both handprinted symbols and the shorthand alphabets used by handwriting recognition software for handheld devices. Just have a look at the image below: when scanned, the image is even fainter than a computer printout in a dot matrix font.

Cursive handwriting

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Arabic documents

You may argue that in Arabic, the characters of a word are linked too and yet, OCR software that can successfully recognize it exists alright. True, but know that it takes highly specialized OCR routines to recognize Arabic documents, and that the images are never as degraded as handwritten (Latin) text!

It’s no surprise that the characters are joined in Arabic: historically speaking, the Arabic script is an imitation of handwriting! Most letters are joined to the following letter of the same word and some combinations of letters form special “ligatures”. Only a few letters (“disjoined letters”), for instance alif (Alif character) and the phonetic symbol hámza (Hamza character), are not connected to the next letter in the word! (We repeat that Arabic is written from right to left: the “next” letter is on the left, not on the right.)

Arabic document

And there’s more: to justify printed text placed in columns etc., the shape of some letters can be elongated (“Kashida” or “tatweel”words) — all of which is very different from the Latin script!

Kashida &ndash tatweel for the justification of Arabic texts           Justified Latin-script document with varying word spacing

Farsi (a.k.a.Persian”), the language from Iran that also uses the Arabic script, does not use elongated letters. Extra spaces are added between the words to align the text in columnized newspapers, magazines etc.

Justified document in Farsi with widely varying word and character spacing

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Let’s take things step by step, shall we?Take us where the rainbow ends!B is for binarizeWhat gets read and what doesn’tLines, lineskew and drop lettersSegmenting words and charactersStylized fontsWhy is OCR software called omnifont?What’s the role of linguistics in the OCR process?

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