Appropriate use of small caps

Peter G.'s picture

After seeing the popularity of my previous post on the proper use of the ampersand, I thought I would get some feedback on the proper use of small caps.

So, when is it, and when is not, appropriate to use small caps? Should they always be used with acronyms in body copy? And should "small caps" be written with or without the dash?

paul d hunt's picture

peter, a lot of questions such as these could be anwered by reading Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.

Miss Tiffany's picture

I understand using small caps in place of all caps for acronyms, however, it is extremely ... ok, maybe not extremely ... annoying at the beginning of sentences. So, that said, if someone is going to use small caps for acronyms please have your copy-writer re-write the sentence to put the acronym elsewhere in the sentence. Other than that small caps aren't so bad in place of all caps. Hmm. Ok, well it the text has a lot of acronyms either small caps or caps will stand out... my 2 bits.

Christian Robertson's picture

It seems odd to make a copywriter rewrite every sentence starting with an acronym. Writers at NASA would have to write nearly everything in passive voice. You might check out the TypoWiki article for Small Caps.

Peter G.'s picture

Paul, it's on my wish list.

manard's picture

It would be interesting, for me, to know the origin of the small capitals style. Here in Europe it's always been of little use. I suppose it's North American, end of 19th century?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Christian, I was being a little sarcastic and unrealistic, I realize this, but I still think small cap acronyms at the beginning of sentences looks worse that all cap acronyms. The reality is, of course, that it is most likely unavoidable. But a girl can still have her opinion.

On second thought, however, if one is lucky enough to have a copywriter involved from the word go, why not have the watch for that and do their best to avoid it as many times as possible?

hrant's picture

That's why smallcaps of different sizes can be useful. Not that 99% of users won't simply ignore any smallcaps facility outright anyway... :-/


hereandthere's picture

one thing i am wondering:

should things like OK (okay), OD, CD and PR all be set in small caps?

cvold's picture

I believe acronyms less than three characters should remain in regular caps.

Three or more characters should be small caps and slightly letterspaced.

dezcom's picture

I think it depends on both the context and content. The context contains the particular typeface and style and the "company culture". The content may dictate as well. If one book is just riddled with acronyms, you might want to tone them down with mall caps. If another book or article wants to place greater emphasis then keep them all caps. I don't think the number of letters should dictate small caps though. Consistant usage is important. What if I had a string of acronyms, would I only small cap the longer ones? Think of a sporting event where colleges played eachother and the local paper said, "UCLA beat UC by 20 points but UNLV was trounced by OU 100 to 10."


Kristina Drake's picture

We recently grappled with this in our publications. They are, in some sections more than others, rife with acronyms like JMSB, CA, CMA, CIAC etc... as well as with degrees (BA, BComm). I would have liked to make them all small caps, but so far the university's style in all other publications is BA, PhD, BComm and so on, so it wouldn't fly.

We ended up doing small caps for all non-degree acronyms except "IT" which would have been confusing in certain sentences. It's consistent in an inconsistent way ;) But certainly (in my opinion) better than JMSB appearing 10 times all caps in one column. Only one occasion did the acronym begin a sentence. I believe I all capped it because no other acronyms followed and I (unfortunately) have no lee-way for those kind of edits.


carynbp's picture

Is there a rule on usage of small caps for time, such as AM, PM and Noon?

Nick Shinn's picture

Hrant has a good point.
I should add that if the type has a small x-height, this allows a largish small cap, quite distinct in size from both lc and caps -- and that is often the kind of face that has alternate small caps.
So it can be problematic for many publications that require large x-height faces for copy-cramming purposes.
You also have a situation where the capitals are themselves quite small, much shorter than ascender height. For instance, types like H&FJ's Mercury offer a solution -- where an all-cap setting is not particularly obtrusive.
However, I have come to the opinion that I should produce amply sized small caps in all my faces, even those with smallish capitals to begin with.

Another factor is tracking. Traditionally, small caps had very spacious sidebearings, for a reason. But that doesn't seem to be the case for most digital fonts.

hrant's picture

In fact I think making the normal caps quite short is the best solution to address the sad reality that virtually nobody bothers with smallcaps. It might even make sense to provide an adjunct set of large caps, for use by those who are savvy enough to notice! :-/

> small caps had very spacious sidebearings, for a reason.

But I think the main/good reason -that all-caps looks best when loose- is still valid in the digital world - beside the fact that you don't need to file down sidebearings on tight caps any more!

hhp's picture

It is my practice to set acronyms with small caps, unless they are spelled with full stops between them, as e.g. the initials of a name, as in Alexander A.M. Stols. Small caps would be confusing, but caps would be obtrusive. In that case I use caps, but slightly vertically scaled, at e.g. 95%. This however is not an entirely satisfying solution because of the distorted weight (i.e. no true optical scaling). The ideal were typefaces that offered caps, small caps and something in-between, but properly designed to fit the overall weight of the face.

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