small caps vs petite caps vs IPA small capitals - tips?

ChristTrekker's picture

Any insights on distinguishing these three types of characters? My particular case is for a sans-serif, but any thoughts (or links) appreciated.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

I don’t know what IPA small capitals are.

Petite capitals are optically aligned with the x-height. They are mostly good for display work, for example in a logotype. There aren’t that many typefaces with petite caps and small caps, but there are plenty of typefaces with small caps at “petite” height (confused?).

Small caps are usually noticably taller than the x-height. In modern typography, they are mostly used for acronyms and words/names set in capitals in a line of otherwise mixed-case/lowercase words. Traditionally, small caps have been used to mark beginnings of chapters. The modern usage intends to blend in and not get noticed, the traditional usage is a stylistic one where being noticed is the whole point.

Small caps and petite caps might also differ in weight, width, detailing, and structure. There is no clear recipe. It all depends on what task you want them to fulfill.

ChristTrekker's picture

IPA small capitals are the symbols used by linguists to represent phonemes and such. They're encoded in their own Unicode block with other phonetic symbols.

Barring general advice (which may have been too broad of a question anyway), I was curious about two things, mainly. First, for those that have designed them before, if the small/petite cap glyphs might be reused for the IPA, or if people design new distinct glyphs for these characters. Second, is there any trend about when petite vs small caps are used, like maybe it's a history of German vs British traditions, or something.

Joshua Langman's picture

I like my small caps small. Which is to say as a typographer I prefer petite caps for everything, even in running text. I dislike small caps that are taller than x-height. But that's just me.

Certainly the IPA symbols should not be taller than X height.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

That sounds like a terrible idea, Joshua. What is the purpose?

Joshua Langman's picture

There's no "purpose," it's just an aesthetic preference. I find the discontinuity between the established line of the x-height and things that are almost the same height to be distracting.

But I've certainly used typefaces with small caps that are taller than x-height, and I've often left them that way, though sometimes I've shrunk them slightly to match.

(Also, I could clarify that I'm usually typesetting literary fiction and not, say, trendy magazine copy.)

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Lining things up should be reserved for display. I would argue for making the difference clear, though. (And also for putting aesthetic preference in the back seat.)

DTY's picture

IPA small caps are intended to be mixed among lowercase letters, so they should match those in height. Otherwise, I prefer small caps that are clearly taller than x-height (for typesetting academic books, where small caps may be performing a function other than just decoration).

LiliCharlie's picture

That’s true though strictly speaking when used for IPA even abc are not lower case, as it is a unicameral script — IPA has no distinction between lower and upper case letters. However the alphabet was designed on the basis of Latin lowercase letters, and I have never seen a typeface that departed from this usage. On the other hand IPA makes a clearcut distinction between pairs like ʀ–r ɴ–n ɑ–a ʒ–z etc.
What is important when designing an IPA font is the fact that there must be room enough for diacritics above and below the letters. Those may be used in unpredictable ways and even be stacked, thus: [ʀ̥ɪ̃̀ɴ̩́], which should display like this:


Technically the best IPA fonts currently available are certainly those produced by SIL International’s Non-Roman Script Initiative, especially Victor Gaultney’s Gentium Plus.

I think the choice of small or petite caps depends to some extent on the language for which they are used. For German body text I have a strong tendency to use petite caps (x-height), as words are frequently distinguished on the basis of upper vs. lower case alone in that language. This seems to increase reading speed significantly.

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