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Appropriate use of small caps

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Peter Gurry's picture
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Joined: 30 Mar 2005 - 12:15am
Appropriate use of small caps
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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
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Joined: 5 May 2005 - 8:44pm
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peter, a lot of questions such as these could be anwered by reading Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Joined: 13 Jul 2001 - 11:00am
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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's picture
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Joined: 16 Apr 2005 - 10:57am
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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 Gurry's picture
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Joined: 30 Mar 2005 - 12:15am
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Paul, it's on my wish list.

Massimo Nardini's picture
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Joined: 20 Jun 2003 - 5:55pm
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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?

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Joined: 13 Jul 2001 - 11:00am
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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 H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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That's why smallcaps of different sizes can be useful. Not that 99% of users won't simply ignore any smallcaps facility outright anyway... :-/

hhp

Gregg Einhorn's picture
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Joined: 30 Jan 2005 - 2:36am
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one thing i am wondering:

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

carrie voldengen's picture
Joined: 6 Sep 2006 - 11:48am
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I believe acronyms less than three characters should remain in regular caps.

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

Chris Lozos's picture
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Joined: 25 Feb 2004 - 11:00am
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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."

ChrisL

Kristina Drake's picture
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Joined: 6 Sep 2005 - 8:20pm
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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.

K.

Caryn B Persinger's picture
Joined: 14 Sep 2006 - 10:26am
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Is there a rule on usage of small caps for time, such as AM, PM and Noon?

Nick Shinn's picture
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Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am
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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 H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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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

Dr Wouter Soudan's picture
Joined: 12 Sep 2006 - 8:01am
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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.