top of page
  • Writer's pictureRaphaël Freeman

4. To Cap or Not to Cap?

This is the fourth of a 10-part series of the Ten Keys to Seamless Typesetting.

If I were to ask you what laser or radar stands for, you might be surprised to find out that they are both acronyms. You can click on the words to find out for what.

As the English language evolves we need to decide how to set these words. To start with, acronyms might be set with periods eg R.A.D.A.R., then as time goes on the periods are dropped – RADAR, and then the text might set in lowercase: radar. Today TV is sometimes simply set in lowercase as “tv.”

image of small caps

During the “full cap” stage (with or without periods) setting words, particularly if they are long, in full caps can be somewhat of a typographical jolt to the reader. Most of the time they are not quite ready to make the transition to lowercase so we have to find a way of setting them accordingly especially if there are many acronyms within the manuscript.

The solution is to use small caps. However, it is important to make sure the typeface includes true small caps rather than faking it by using the small caps setting within the software. As you can see in the below diagram, the first paragraph has the acronym, NASA, set in small caps by reducing the full caps to 70% of the original height. This makes the word appear ill-formed and a lighter grey than the rest of the text ruining the composition.

The second paragraph has NASA set in true small caps that the font designer has created specially for the font. The small caps are more sturdy and has the correct x-height and the colour remains even.

The decision as to which acronyms should be set in small caps is up to the typesetter. Robert Bringhurst, in his book Elements of Typographic Style has recommendations that most typesetters will base their style on. In general, I tend not to set countries in small caps mainly because “US” in small caps will be confused with “us.” For a book that contains references to only the USSR and the UK (if the US is not mentioned), I may well break this rule in favour of a more seamless read.

I will small cap acronyms of organisations such as UNESCO, NASA, CNN and certainly the names of vessels like the USS Enterprise since it is the logical thing to do. Also acronyms such as ISBN, BASIC, and even states such as NY will get the same treatment. However, one must be careful not to set a person’s initials as small caps.

A general rule that should be followed is that when acronyms are set in the midst of numbers, which are set as text figures, then small caps should be used. Hence ITV3 or BBC1 should be set in small caps.

So when it comes to setting time such as 7 A.M. then the A.M. should be set in small caps either with or withough the periods. Some publishers will set it as 7 am or even 7am, ie in lowercase with no space nor periods. The same rule applies to the year 2018 CE or 2018 C.E., in both latter cases the CE would be small capped and so too with currencies such as NIS 100.

There are lots of different approaches to the use of small caps. The important point is that if you wish to use small caps in your text, make sure to choose a font that has true small caps built-in and then build a consistent typographic style.


Repeating the sign-off from the previous post in the series of Ten Keys to Seamless Typesetting – note how this blog post was written with no support for true small caps due to the web editor on this site so I have simply left the text as full caps with the exception of the image above.

If you have a manuscript that you wish to be typeset seamlessly using true small caps, then contact us for a no-obligation discussion by clicking here.

Looking forward to your comments below!​

403 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page