Small Caps

by Alec Julien

Small caps are uppercase glyphs drawn at a lowercase scale. A common misconception—unfortunately reinforced by most word processing programs as well as by CSS on the web—is that a small cap is just a regular capital letter scaled uniformly down to a smaller size. In actuality, a proper small cap is a carefully crafted glyph that differs in significant ways from a uniformly-scaled-down capital letter.

Small Cap height

Generally speaking, small caps are about as tall as the font’s  x-height. Look, for instance, at Minion Pro’s lower case m compared to a small cap Minion Pro m; it’s marginally taller than the lowercase m and the font’s x-height. Other typefaces have small caps that are the same height as the x-height, while others still stand a little shorter.

small caps height


Obviously, since the height of the small cap m is about as tall as the x-height of a regular Minion Pro lowercase m, a small cap m at any given point size is significantly smaller than an upper case or regular cap M at the same point size:

caps-and-small-caps.png

Different Ms

When we scale the small cap m up to be the same height as a 381pt M, it’s  534pt; and in this case we can clearly see the differences between the two glyphs. The small cap version is, for one thing, wider than its capital counterpart, and its serifs are, for another thing, taller.

reg-versus-small-caps.png

Why is the small cap “m” proportionately wider and bolder? A picture is worth a thousand words:

comparisons: regular caps and small caps

Note that when regular Minion Pro caps are scaled down (1.1) to the same height as Minion small caps (1.0), the effect is dramatically different. The regular caps are lighter, tighter, and have a less striking visual impact. For illustrative purposes, I set a very loose tracking on the regular caps (1.2), to get closer to the look of the small caps. Closer still to the small caps version is a loosely tracked semibold version (1.3). But even this doesn’t quite capture the visual essence of the small caps version.

What we’re used to

The algorithms for generating small caps in most desktop programs is both simple and woefully inadequate. Look at what Microsoft Word does when it generates ‘small caps’ in a font (Times New Roman) that doesn’t come with its own small caps:

ersatz cap

First of all, note that, compared to our Minion Pro example, the Times fake small cap m is too tall. But the more heinous crime is that the fake small cap m is literally just a small capital. When we scale the ‘small cap’ to be the same height as the regular capital, we can see this clearly—note the position of the lines in the graphic below:

faking it

CSS

And the same thing happens in your browser. Unfortunately most so-called web-safe fonts don’t have small caps and, even if they did, it appears that CSSs font-variant: small-caps simply ignores them and rescales the regular cap; and yet The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) states,

A value of ‘normal’ selects a font that is not a small-caps font, ‘small-caps’ selects a small-caps font. (emphasis added)

Well, it doesn’t appear to work.

What’s the point?

Here’s a random page from a David Hume book, via Google Books:

Hume

Uses of small caps are circled in red.

What are they good for?

As you can see, small caps are an important part of your typographical arsenal—most commonly, they are used for acronyms, but they can also be used for setting page headers, in captions and legends, or for abbreviations, acronyms and definitions in your body text—but if you’re going to use them, do it right: buy fonts that have small caps in them, and use them in a decent page layout program that respects them.

Anziano designed by Stefan Hattenbach is a relatively new type that has an excellent set of small caps.

[Alec Julien, a regular contributor to iLT, is a web developer and amateur typographer, living in Vermont, US. He dreams of someday living somewhere warm, and typesetting a novel.]

More articles by Alec:

So you want to create a font: part 1 | part 2
Font creation case study: Joules


  1. Like you said I use small caps for my post headers on my site, but when capitolized the first letter is more bold than the other letters and is rather distasteful in my opinion. I’m not sure what I could do about this. Possibly just drop the small caps, but I like the look of small caps.

  2. Dylan
    If you like them, keep them.

    You could try reducing the weight of the initial capital letters; e.g.
    font-weight: 300.; or, conversely, increasing the weight of the ‘small caps’. bold is equivalent to 700; 400 is the normal or regular weight. Font-weight link.

  3. Jos Buivenga’s fantastic Delicious font has a dedicated small caps variant; one of the many reasons why I love it.

  4. Anziano’s small caps are up on fontshop for free if you are registered :) they are GORGEOUS. Unbelievably beautiful. Makes me wish I had more opportunity to use small caps :) Good post! I love your blog :)

  5. i’m happy to see small caps in the spotlight! One thing not mentioned, is the use of caps/small caps, which looks very elegant, letter spaced in any classic serif font.

  6. I always wondered what they where for.

    I had a idea it should be used like minuscule numbers, for not drawing to much attention and adding to the colouring of body text and disturbing the eyes “qi”.

  7. As usual, extremely solid stuff. I just finished reading about some of this in “The Elements of Typographical Style”. Its fun to see another way of looking at the information. Well done!

  8. Alec writing about Minion.. who would have imagined that?! ;)

  9. I LOVED this ARTICLE!

  10. Peter
    I didn’t recall Delicious having small caps. Thanks.

    elyse
    I thought they were no longer available for free? Thanks for your kind words. See you on Sunday.

    Heidi
    Yes, after Alec’s excellent article, I think I might be worth devoting an entire article to their uses; perhaps with a little history of the small cap too.

    Matthew
    Thanks. I had wanted to check what Bringhurst had to say on small caps, but I’d packed ‘Elements’—should have been the last book to pack, really :)

    Esben
    I smiled too when I saw Minion used for the example—a great choice though.

    Marco
    …and so pleased you said it in all-caps ;)

    Alec
    great article. Many thanks again!

  11. hussein

    GREAT morning.. Great POST :)

  12. Excellent insight, Alec. I’m always learning something with my visits here.

    Off-topic, and for John, I enjoy reading your articles in my feed reader, and have a suggestion to improve usability. Once I’ve finished reading the article, and when I want to add a comment, I have to scroll back to the top in order to click-through via the post title. You’re using FeedBurner’s feed flare. Had you thought about adding a flare to enable readers to ‘add a comment’? It’d make things easier and possibly attract more comments.

  13. miha

    Very nice article, Alec! And there are also petite caps in OpenType :P

  14. Thanks, all!

    @Miha: Regarding petite caps, there’s an interesting Typophile thread here. I think there aren’t a lot of fonts that take advantage of that feature. Mrs Eaves is one.

  15. Very interesting article — thanks!

  16. BW

    Good article, and I’m glad you displayed the comparisons. I learned what a small cap is when I was a signpainter. When you actually draw and paint letters, you notice things like the width of strokes. So if you only scale down a cap, you’re not matching the font at all, and it looks funny. The average layman client can’t tell you exactly what’s wrong, be he can see that something is.

  17. Nice article, Johno. As a student of philosophy, you find small caps used a lot to bring out important concepts, especially in the early modern period. Fortunately, a lot of publishers continue to use small caps to set out important words and phrases even today.

  18. I love small caps so much. I always try to use them when I’m setting small text to create a nice and elegant hierarchy.

    And ok… i confess i use it on other occasions too… they look great :)

  19. Lindsay Rollo

    I find all this discussion on ‘true’ versus ‘scaled’ small caps both tedious and quite unnecessary.

    While it might be an issue for the font designer, it’s quite irrelevant for the working editors or desktop publishers.

    What is important about small caps is that they provide a visual distinction to text that can be used to convey to the reader that the marked text has a particular characteristic. Each publisher’s house style determines the significance of the text in small capitals.

    I agree that some implementations of scaled small caps do not provide a large enough distinction between full and small caps. This is not a reason, other than designer’s vanity, to get your knickers in a twist over the barely distinguishable differences between the two forms at the commonly used text font sizes of 10–14 points for extended texts.

    I was interested to see that the Open Source dtp program Scribus makes provision for the operator to amend the relative height of small caps.

    Let the designers have their say, but spare us their wailing at the wall of perfectionism or dilettantism.

  20. Thanks for yet another fascinating read. I am fast becoming a fan of your site. Cheers!

  21. “Let the designers have their say, but spare us their wailing at the wall of perfectionism or dilettantism.”

    Nice sentence!

    I, of course, take issue with a couple of your points, however…

    “What is important about small caps is that they provide a visual distinction to text…”

    Well, that’s one important thing. But it’s not merely important to have any old visual distinction, otherwise one could just use, say, Comic Sans in place of Minion small caps. Of course, you might argue that that’s not your point, and that one could just use reduced caps of a particular font. But, as was the point of this piece, and as the illustrations in 1.0 - 1.3 are meant to show, a good set of small caps provides a very tangible difference from reduced caps, so that providing publishers with an option of small caps becomes a potentially important typographical tool.

    Speaking of which…

    “While it might be an issue for the font designer, it’s quite irrelevant for the working editors or desktop publishers.” But the font designer’s job is to make things that are indeed relevant for editors and publishers, isn’t it? So I’m thinking small caps wouldn’t continue to be made if publishers didn’t find a continuing place for them.

    In any event, railing against the “tedium” of perfectionism on a site about typography seems a bit misplaced. I hate to generalize, but I think that most typographers are entranced by the little details that make typography so interesting.

    But it is good to be reminded that my obsessions aren’t necessarily universal. Thanks for your comment.

  22. I’d like to see some posts about designing with typography. Like the process you generally go through when you are doing a page layout with text. How you select the font, what fonts you eliminate, why you go with whatever you choose.

  23. Hello Lindsay.

    On this thread, you said:

    “I’m from the school of general and technical editors for whom the word is paramount, and anything that gets in the road of the simple, direct, and easiest comprehension of the structure and content of the text is not only an distraction, but also a disservice to the reader”

    I believe that ‘fake’ small caps could be termed a distraction. We design small caps to harmonise with the U&lc, in order to prevent distraction.

    “This is not a reason, other than designer’s vanity, to get your knickers in a twist over the barely distinguishable differences between the two forms at the commonly used text font sizes of 10–14 points for extended texts.”

    This is definitely NOT designer’s vanity. The proper use of small caps is the mark of a craftsman, of a typographer that cares. It is like using an en-dash to connect numbers instead of a hyphen, which you noted was a good idea. I am sure the reader wouldn’t notice, but you care enough to do it. At what point would you strike off typographic procedure and let MS Word formatting take over?

    As an aside, it is quite ironic that you choose to label small caps a ‘vanity’ on a website dedicated to typography.

  24. Lindsay Rollo

    Alec:

    Your gently worded chiding is both diplomatic and justified.

    My comment about the importance of small caps is entirely within the wordsmithing I used usually to do — extended text in serif type. But I have followed the useful practice of mixed type faces and attributes to identify conventions in instructional manuals.

    As with most of the worldwide activity of word processing and page layouting, we work with True Type fonts. Macs and multiple masters and the like are the preserve of the professional and, until the recent past, those who did not first have to save the moeney to buy what was significantly more expensive equipment and fonts. We do the best we can with the resources we can afford or are available.

    Small caps will continue to have a place in all publishing, whatever the resources available for the project. It’s just that I very much doubt if the reader will notice the difference between ‘true’ and ‘scaled’ small caps in common text fonts sizes.

    I think my contribution would have been helped if I had declared my view that typographers are those who use fonts to present text in the most readily recognisable forms that aid the comprehension of structure and content of the text. It is the font designers who are interested in the minutia of font design — the rest of us just want to use fonts for typographic purposes.

    Readers here probably need no reminder of Stanley Morison’s dictum: ‘Typography is the craft of rightly disposing of printing materials in accordance with a specific purpose: of so arranging the letters, distributing the space and controlling the type so as to aid to the maximum the reader’s comprehension of the text.’

  25. David
    Thanks for that suggestion; it hadn’t occurred to me. I’m just trying to find that comment Feedflare. It’s not in the main list.

    BW
    Yes, as a sign-painter, those hugely magnified ‘smaller’ details, suddenly become that much more important.

    Jesse
    I was just reading your A debate over definitions. Great piece.

    Michael
    I’ve started writing a three-part introduction to typography. I’m hoping that it will be a good place to start—especially for those new to type.

    Lindsay
    Long time, no see. Hope that you’re doing well.

    It’s just that I very much doubt if the reader will notice the difference between ‘true’ and ‘scaled’ small caps in common text fonts sizes.

    True. And I also doubt that diners will notice the pinch of salt or the oh-so-gentle squeeze of lemon the expert chef adds to his dish.

    I certainly underhand where you’re coming from; however, typography (like pretty much anything) is comprised of details—oftentimes apparently inconsequential minutiae. A good type designer will take care to position, shape and size even the smallest of elements (the tittle in the lowercase i, the shape, size, and position of a comma or period; manually adjust thousands of kerning pairs). The constituent elements combine to aid to the maximum the reader’s comprehension of the text..

    Most people, most of the time will remain oblivious to the detail (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), for when the detail is conceived as a constituent part of the whole, then it will not distract or hinder comprehension and legibility. Yesterday, I spent some time looking at single Lilly (Amaryllis belladonna) in a plain unglazed vase; the petals were infused with a feint blush of pink, the filaments (stems) of the stamina terminated with beautifully ‘crafted’ anthers (serifs) dusted with mustard and yellow ochre pollen; myriad other details coalesced into an exquisitely beautiful whole. Most will appreciate the beauty of the Lilly; few will notice the ‘minor’ details; but that does not make them extraneous.

    Moreover, the pride of a craftsmen (in this instance a typographer or type designer) comes into play, but that too, I’m sure you’re cognizant of.

  26. Lindsay Rollo

    Michael:

    I have a partly written text on selecting fonts for extended text.

    I might get you to review it before submitting it to iLT.

  27. BW

    “I find all this discussion on ‘true’ versus ‘scaled’ small caps both tedious and quite unnecessary.”
    ——————
    Well, this is what designers do, and this is why we have fonts and characters. By way of trite analogy, I’ve had the same truck for 30 years. You’d think I may know a lot about it by now, but in a conversation with automotive mechanics and body-men, I’m still over my head within a few minutes. I don’t care about compression ratio, the properties of metal primers or who won NASCAR. But those people do, and that’s why I’m able to drive. My options are to put up with them, or do the work myself, or walk.

  28. TypoJunkie

    “And I also doubt that diners will notice the pinch of salt or the oh-so-gentle squeeze of lemon the expert chef adds to his dish.”

    Best. Analogy. Ever. Everyone understands food (unlike typography); I have to write that one down.

    Great article Alec, I also have a soft–spot for Small Caps.

  29. Mark

    To your “The world is everything that is the case,” I feel obligated to respond “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

    Nice blog and excellent post. I love small caps. It’s nice to see there are good people still sweating the details.

  30. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

    Well-played!

  31. I think its a mater of functionality and detail. There’s some designers that care about those qualities and there’s others that dot… simple.

    So yeah… at the end it’s mainly the designers choice do use them or not, and as i said before, i even use them out of they’re context.

  32. Really good stuff!

  33. Wow, Alec, this is great. I have been wondering for a long time what the differences b/n uppercase reduced and small caps was, but alas, too busy—or too lazy—to do the research myself. I love how much you use pictures, Alec, to tell the story; they are just as important as the words and being a visual learner, they help me understand much better than words alone. I love learning new stuff like this!! TY!

    I actually got a lot more from these comments than the article though (not that the article was poorly written in any way! It inspired the conversation above!), particularly the comments that expanded on why it’s important to use small caps over a reduced uppercase. It really clicked for me when Kris said “We design small caps to harmonise with the U&lc, in order to prevent distraction.” Ah! I completely understand now :) But then I had the exact same thought as Lindsay voiced (er… wrote): Will the reader really know/see the difference? And wonderful John, your response was so perfect: “few will notice the ‘minor’ details; but that does not make them extraneous.” Loved the food metaphor.

    And Alec, what a diplomat! Your first response to Lindsay was very eloquent.

  34. Another excellent article Alec! I wasn’t aware of the distinction between small caps and the actual capitals. Though now being so enlightened, I will most certainly put more thought into it’s usage.

    There has been some discussion as to whether one would notice such a minute detail. And I suppose I am a living example of this. But even so, I do not see small caps as being extraneous or useless. Graphic design, and Typography are largely the sum of their constituent parts, and when these parts work towards better readability and aesthetic, I think it makes all the difference.

  35. Lindsay, Charles Ellertson, a very experienced book typographer, pointed out over on Typophile that sub-heads and running heads in proper small caps—a common use—match the ‘color’ (tone of grey) of text blocks. If you use fake small caps or indeed caps they won’t match as well. You may want a sub-head that has more contrast, depending on the design. But true small caps gives you this highly readable option, which fake small caps don’t.

  36. William
    Thank you. Do you have a link to that Typophile node?

  37. Johno, here’s the link to that recent Typophile discussion about small caps. Ellertson’s comments are more complex than I remembered. You may or may not agree with him, but when it comes to the fine points of book typography it seems like there’s nobody more knowledgeable.

  38. William
    Many thanks for the link. I need to re-read and ponder.

  39. Mm— nice! Thanks for this, Alec… I don’t really have much to add, but I couldn’t just “stay silent” even though I cannot really speak about this. :) Except to say that I really find small-caps more elegant, and always have even before starting to learn about typography this past year. They lend a certain “something” to a text, I guess the same way that the hypothetical chef’s squeeze of lemon does.

    And thanks to everyone else for their comments, too.

  40. Very interesting article, thanks. I really like to use small caps, they are so neat and elegant.

  41. Hi Alec,

    Your comments on the core web fonts and CSS font-variant property are spot-on. However, whilst lamenting the absence of small-caps and old-style numerals in core web fonts, and wondering how we could improve the defaults, I use small caps deliberately and extensively. One of the reasons for doing so—apart from my love of the variant (even faked)—is as a proof of concept.

    When pushed on features like CSS3 properties, I’ve heard implementors say, “show me an example of how they’re being used so I can see the need.” So, although I agree with your final statement in principal—and definitely in print—on the web we should encourage their use, if only to provide the implementors with the rationale for doing it right.

    Ascender Corp now owning the rights to develop and license further variants (like small caps) for Georgia etc. is a lament for another day.

  42. @Jon — Your articles are excellent (great site, by the way!), and your point is a good one. Sometimes I get overly pessimistic about the web, and it unduly colors my outlook. I’m glad you’re out there fighting the good fight!

  43. Thanks Alex! I completely get the pessimism. Even something as simple a looking at the differences in baseline positioning for the same face across browsers and platforms can be frustrating.

    On extending the core web fonts to include variants like small caps and more faces: I’d welcome everyone’s feedback, ideas and help on doing so, and on how to ensure typographers are properly compensated and commissioned in the process.

  44. Ollie Jones

    Thanks for this fine article. The unbalanced look of small caps generated by typical word-processing programs has always annoyed me, and I’m glad to see a clear explanation of the issue.

    I could use some advice:

    I work in a church office, so I crank out a high number of small publications with high-value text in them, using a decent but not fabulous 1200 dpi laser printer. I’m very concerned with legibility; I have some readers who are getting on in years.

    If I acquire body-text fonts with a full complement of small caps, will my cheesy word processing program (MS Word on Windows) do the right thing with the small caps? Or to do this right would I have to switch to something like Quark Express?

    Thanks for any wisdom!

  45. Hi Ollie. If you have a font with small caps, you can use those small caps in MS Word — the key is to select the characters to be transformed and actually change the font from, e.g., Minion to Minion Small Caps, instead of just clicking on Word’s small caps formatting button and letting it do its “small caps” machinations.

  46. Joe

    I typeset a lot of wedding invitations, and it seems like small caps would be a good choice for invitations.

    As a beginning designer, I was wondering if some of you experienced designers ever set longer lines of text entirely in small caps, such as all the lines in an invitation.

    Although I think many times small caps looks better than regular capitals, it seems like it is a pain to access small caps in open type fonts. Is there an easier way to typeset these small caps in open type fonts than double clicking the individual characters in the glyphs palette?

    This is my first post. great site!

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