small capsUse real small caps; avoid fakes

Small caps are short cap­i­tal let­ters de­signed to blend with low­er­case text. They’re usu­ally slightly taller than low­er­case let­ters. 

I’m a big fan of small caps. They look great and they’re very use­ful as an al­ter­na­tive to bold or italic or all caps.

But most peo­ple have never seen real small caps. They’ve only seen the er­satz small caps that word proces­sors and web browsers gen­er­ate when small-cap for­mat­ting is used.

Witness Protectionfake
Witness Protectionreal
Trixie Argon, Ways to Be Wicked, in
Conjuring for Beginners, at 137–39
(London, Quid Pro Books, 2004).
Trixie Argon, Ways to Be Wicked, in
Conjuring for Beginners, at 137–39
(London, Quid Pro Books, 2004).

Small-cap for­mat­ting works by scal­ing down reg­u­lar caps. But com­pared to the other char­ac­ters in the font, the fake small caps that re­sult are too tall, and their ver­ti­cal strokes are too light. The color and height of real small caps have been cal­i­brated to blend well with the nor­mal up­per­case and low­er­case letters.

There­fore, two rules for small caps:

  1. Don’t click on the small-cap for­mat­ting box in your word proces­sor. Ever. This op­tion does not pro­duce small caps. It pro­duces in­fe­rior coun­ter­feits. (Even when you’re us­ing a font with real small caps.)

  2. The rules for all caps also ap­ply to small caps: use small caps spar­ingly, add let­terspac­ing, and turn on kern­ing.

Now for the bad news. If you want real small caps, you’ll have to buy them—they’re not in­cluded with Times New Ro­man or any other sys­tem font.

Some­times, small caps come in their own font file that shows up sep­a­rately in the font menu. When you want small caps, you for­mat the text with the small-cap font. Other times, small caps are in­cluded in the main font file as an Open­Type fea­ture (named smcp). But ei­ther way, you can also use para­graph and char­ac­ter styles to ap­ply small caps, and elim­i­nate the te­dium of find­ing them.

by the way
  • With small caps, it’s up to you whether to use reg­u­lar cap­i­tal let­ters at the be­gin­ning of cap­i­tal­ized words. I pre­fer not to.

  • I de­liver my fonts (see mb fonts) with sep­a­rate sets of small-caps fonts with the let­terspac­ing al­ready baked in. This saves la­bor. It also al­lows you to get prop­erly spaced small caps in any pro­gram, even those that don’t sup­port Open­Type fea­tures or let­terspac­ing. (In­clud­ing web browsers—see let­terspac­ing for more.)

  • Af­ter years in the wilder­ness, the CSS prop­erty font-vari­ant: small-caps is now safe to use. By de­fault, it will ac­cess the Open­Type small caps in the font—if they ex­ist. Oth­er­wise, you’ll get the same old in­fe­rior counterfeits.

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