Times New Roman is serif because it features the “finishing off” stroke at the ends of its larger strokes. Meaning, Times New Roman letters aren’t just lines—they are lines with embellishments used to make letters distinctive and easier to read in books, newspapers, and magazines.
(To add, Times New Roman is a a serif typeface, not a font—not that I’m sure it matters much here, but wanted to point it out.)
To easily tell the difference between fonts, just look at a letter or a few letters of the font in question.
- Do letters like “A” and “H” look like their legs have feet or extra support?
- Does the cross atop the letter “T” or the lines coming out of “E” look like they have fangs?
- Does the letter “G” appear to have a symmetrical table or just half a table?
As you can tell from the above, it’s not a formal process, and can be one that you have fun with in order to enhance your recall of what a sans serif font looks like compared to a serif.
Why the Confusion?
First, there is confusion between serif and sans serif fonts because the meanings of these words aren’t widely known. To the point of this post, most people don’t know the definition of “serif” as explained above. But to compound the issue, people also aren’t familiar with the word “sans” (simply meaning “without).
Second, because “sans serif” is wordier, some probably feel this extra word means the font itself should also include something extra, like the finishing off embellishments that serif fonts feature. In reality, the opposite is true, where the basic term “serif” describes the “extra” typeface and the longer term “sans serif” describes the basic typeface.
You see the same thing happen with “fiction” and “non-fiction” to a degree. The word “non” is similar to “not,” and we describe things as being “not true,” it’s easy to get caught up with thinking that “non fiction” means “not true” or “not real.” But, because the definition of “fiction” already is “imaginary” we cancel that out with “non” in order to arrive at “non-fiction” being based on real facts or events.