Home : Book Design Basics: Small Capitals – Avoiding Capital Offenses

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Book Design Basics: Small Capitals – Avoiding Capital Offenses — 9 Comments

  1. I’m enjoying reading your series on basic book design. It’s especially neat to see the pages from an eighteenth-century text, demonstrating that the current rules started centuries ago. My background is a decade of working full-time as a proofreader in the typesetting industry–back when there was a typesetting industry! So I’m in favor of preserving the standards and niceties, though there will always be areas of disagreement among experts.

    Can you perhaps fix the example from “A Christmas Carol” to show an apostrophe before ‘Change, instead of a single open quote?

    • I caught that, too. Apparently, it’s from the original text. Regardless, I’m going to plead laziness. The example is an image created from typeset text, and it’s a hassle to fix it for the blog post. When the design book comes out, I’ll make sure to fix it there. Thanks for a good catch, though.

    • It’s not mandatory to do anything. The design police won’t come after you. Use all caps if you want. But small caps are a useful typographic tool worth learning about. If you do use them, use a small caps font rather than a smaller version of standard capitals.

      • When I taught high school English and advised the yearbook, I taught students to use small caps for am and pm and bce and ad. Unfortunately, when I’m writing emails, I don’t take the time to figure out all those little special rules. However, in a book or an essay, the small caps look so much better than the huge regular ones. Thanks for bring this subject to people’s attention.

  2. Great information. Getting people to pay attention to the small details is certainly a challenge. Your discussion of small caps is clear. When I taught English, I tried (mostly unsuccessful) to have students use the small caps for am, pm, BC, BCE, AD, etc. You would not believe how hard it was to get the teachers to stop putting two spaces after marks of punctuation. Some, many years younger than I, never stopped.
    Question: Is there a weight or emphasis order for all these combinations? I am laying out a book for a science publication, and they want to use different styles for emphasis. It looks crazy to me, but I’m trying. So does it go, perhaps: ALL CAPS, Big and Small Caps, Caps and Lower Case, all lower case? FAMILY, Subfamily (those are pretend little caps), Tribe, Genus, species. (Can’t make italics here either.)
    Thank you for even reading this. Coming up with an answer would be miraculous.
    Thanks!

    • I think the real answer is that the “right way” is a moving target. Even the “two spaces after a period” convention is now considered obsolete, the explanation that blames the monospacing of the typewriter tirne sout to be apocryphal. Open up a book from the 1800s or early 20th century and you’ll likley see those double spaces set intentionally in hot metal. Herbert Bayer thought that the presence of a period at the end of a sentence made it redundant to open the next with a capital; he created a typeface that was all lowercase. Somewhere along the line, the double-space probably fell victim to a simple fashion shift based on similar logic. Were you around in the late 1980s when it became fashionable to typeset phone numbers with periods instead of dashes between the number groups?

      This is the long answer to your question about type hierarchy. Given that only about 2% of people who set type have any formal knowledge of traditional typography, the closest things we have to absolute references are Bringhurst, a few stuffy style manuals, and a handful of others. You can always refer to Tchichold and other classic texts but the march of fashion trumps all. The research won’t do you any harm but probably, your best bet will be to come up with your own rationale and then make it work. Be the agent of change rather than the victim of it.

      Good question! I wish I had a better answer.

  3. This is superb! Excellent. Thanks soo much for your extensive research, good writing and willingness to share.

    cheers!

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