Small caps

January 12th, 2010  |  Tags: , ,

Like a lot of other fussy nerds, I typically use properly spaced small capital letters when typesetting acronyms. The reason for doing so is simple: large capital letters are designed to appear next to lowercase letters, and are not designed to appear in sequence. As a consequence, strings of large capitals, as might appear in an acronym, are jarring to the reader and can disrupt the color of a page. Small capital letters, on the other hand, are designed to appear next to other small capital letters.

I didn’t think that setting acronyms in this way was controversial, but yesterday John Gruber linked to Toronto author Joe Clark’s mildly-amusing but wrongheaded tirade against the use of small caps in typesetting acronyms. Roughly, Clark’s argument is that:

  1. Small caps fare poorly when applied in a host of pathological cases (like camel-case abbreviations, portmanteaus, or other similarly wretched feats of orthographic gymnastics), and
  2. Only (putatively) pedantic commentators like Robert Bringhurst insist upon using small caps for acronyms, anyway.

I believe that the first claim is the best part of his argument. Indeed, small caps can be applied in the service of careless typography just as well as ordinary Roman capital and lowercase letters. If someone were advocating the universal application of small caps as a panacea, then Clark would really have a point. However, I’ve not seen any well-regarded commentators recommend slavish devotion to small caps, even when amateurish settings result (Bringhurst certainly does not). The second claim strikes me as irrelevant, and I’m disinclined to address it further here.1 Judging by his writing elsewhere, Clark takes some delight in the “fusillade of defamatory comments on pipsqueak blogs” that appear in response to ad hominem attacks on Bringhurst; I like Bringhurst’s work a great deal, but decline to join the fusillade.

Of course, it’s far easier to point out the flaws of others than it is to identify something that actually works, and where Clark’s argument really falls apart is in his proposed solution, which we’ll get to after a bit of background. Recall that real small capitals must be designed separately from large capitals; thus, not every typeface has them. You’ve probably seen “fake small caps” before, which are simply regular large capitals that have been automatically compacted by a word processor.2 Fake small caps look terrible, and Clark himself points this out in his piece (as well as elsewhere on his site). It is thus at least a little ironic that Clark’s recommended solution to the problem of setting acronyms involves making your own fake small caps and then setting them properly spaced: “What works nicely, though? Knock the size down a point, add a few units of tracking, and equalize spacing.”

1 Since I started writing this post, Gruber has also linked to a piece that treats the ersatz anti-bourgeois sentiment of Clark’s second point more directly. (I describe this attitude as ersatz because, honestly, it is hilarious to consider the mere prospect of an anti-bourgeois opinion about typography.)
2 On this matter, Bringhurst says “Any good set of small caps is designed as such from the ground up. Thickening, shrinking, and squashing the full caps with digital modification routines will only produce a parody.”