Using small caps in scientific texts?

Ringo's picture

Hello everyone,

Upcoming days, I'll be working on the design of a dissertation. A friend of mine is becoming a real doctor. In these collection of scientific articles, which, all together, form the body of the dissertation, lots & lots of abbrevations are used, in various kinds. For example:

protein S, protein A, type III, PS antigen, VTE, ATE, acronyms like 'DESCARTES'.

For me, it's all mambojambo, but I wanted to be clear and straightforward and set all these abbrevations in (spaced) small caps.
That's quite a tough job of typographic handwork but I think it's necessary, or at least the best solution.

Am I right with this?

J Weltin's picture

Typographically speaking you’re right. But you have to be careful: there are sciences, law for instance, that don’t want their abbreviations in small caps. You should check that first with the author. It is ok however to set names in small caps.

charles ellertson's picture

If you are a designer, as opposed to, say, a stylist, you need a working knowledge of the conventions the expected audience will have. Especially true in a dissertation, a work establishing that someone should be admitted to a select community. Unless they are an Einstein, a dissertation is not the place to make waves, and in any case, it is not your place to make them.

Don McCahill's picture

Also, I note that protein S is one of the items you listed. A solitary S is notorious for looking like a lower case S when set in small caps. Now I am about as far from a scientist as one can get, but if there is a protein s as well as a protein S, using the small caps might create massive confusion, and perhaps ruin the dissertation.

Sometimes with technical stuff you have to eat your pride and accept ugly. (Your job becomes one of minimizing the amount of ugly, instead of the usual task of eliminating it.)

Bolivar's picture

My advice is: talk with your friend about this things. Science can have a pretty complicated conventions and trying to make things typographically right can lead to many mistakes. I worked on a microbiology thesis, and it was just amazing. I even had proteins wich names were written mixing italics and roman characters.

Good luck!!

www.yagobolivar.es

kentlew's picture

> Sometimes with technical stuff you have to eat your pride and accept ugly.

What's so ugly about a capital S, as in "protein S"? That's not ugly; that's what it's called. And what's wrong with roman numeral III in caps?

Why does everyone hate caps so much?

The only one of your examples that really cries out for small caps might be the DESCARTES acronym.

Otherwise, just add a little extra air to the triple-cap abbreviations and let them go. They've got a job to do.

Ringo's picture

These are all very helpful comments, thank you very much.

I asked my friend about it and indeed he confirmed there is another "protein s", lower case, so actually I am restricted to the use of regular capitals.

>> What’s so ugly about a capital S, as in “protein S”? That’s not ugly; that’s what it’s called. And what’s wrong with roman numeral III in caps?

For me, it's not about ugliness of capitals. It's about the beauty and usefulness of small caps. NOT to use small caps in the cases I listed in my first post, would be just a decision because of professional conventions, not aesthetics.

>> The only one of your examples that really cries out for small caps might be the DESCARTES acronym.

Well, that's another point. My view on typography can be rather black&white. That is to say: if I set the S of "protein S" in regular capital, hence I do the same with the C in "protein C". Off course. But then, why would I use small caps in any case? Setting, for example, DESCARTES in small caps and leaving the roman numerals for what they are, isn't that just an unmotivated, arbitrary choice?

Shouldn't I better skip the whole concept of small caps, in order to be consistent and logical? Or does that way of thinking lack a certain typographic flexibility?

charles ellertson's picture

Well, that’s another point. My view on typography can be rather black&white. That is to say: if I set the S of “protein S” in regular capital, hence I do the same with the C in “protein C”. Off course. But then, why would I use small caps in any case?

You use them when they (1) serve a purpose, and (2) are not contraindicated. We can squabble over particular instances, but should be able to agree on the principle. In passing, the purpose they serve is not "obeying a rule," or "banishing ugliness."

I'm afraid book interior design is really a trade, not an art. It can occasionally be a craft, but those who forget the use of a book interior; the requirement of service to author and reader, are not doing their job.

Charles Leonard's picture

I don't know which country, language, discipline, university, or publisher will be involved in the publication of the dissertation, but surely there is an accepted standard style manual for conventions governing all the issues you are raising. The role of such manuals is to reduce variability of interpretation among participants in that community. The job of the designer is to improve the readability and appearance of the document while working within those conventions. Bon Chance.

Don McCahill's picture

> Why does everyone hate caps so much?

The problem with full cap acronyms is that they alter the visual color of the page. Like bold type, or lining numerals, they make little blobs of heavy ink usage on the page. These can impede reading ... the eye is drawn to the heavy area, breaking away from where it was, and then must fight its way back.

That is the real reason why typographers use small cap acronyms, old style figures, and italic instead of bold for emphasis, with the exception of books designed to make the eye jump to certain locations (dictionaries and key words in a textbook, as examples).

Some people say they use them because they like the look of them, or that they are different. For me that isn't enough.

A single letter in full caps is not a problem, except that of consistency. I always had problems with US when dealing in small caps, as it looks like the word us went set in SC. I always tried to get editor's permission to use USA instead.

kentlew's picture

Don't take my rant personally, Jorik. It's been building for a while.

I'm just reacting to a trend I sense. After a period (phototype and early digital) when small caps were practically non-existent and sorely missed, suddenly now the pendulum seems to have swung the other way.

Seems like everyone wants to apply small caps whenever capitals are removed from lowercase. Small caps have become some badge of typographic sophistication, and who doesn't want to be sophisticated? The more you use, the more sophisticated you are, right?

> Setting, for example, DESCARTES in small caps and leaving the roman numerals for what they are, isn’t that just an unmotivated, arbitrary choice?

I suppose one might think so. But if setting a long acronym in small caps, in order to prevent a dark reading distraction in the text, causes one to also set roman numerals in small caps, wherein they become momentarily confusing to the reader and unclear as roman numerals . . . then I would suggest that (paraphrasing Emerson) "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little caps."

kentlew's picture

> The problem with full cap acronyms is that they alter the visual color of the page.

Yes, I'm quite aware of the problem. Small caps aren't the only solution and not always the most appropriate. As I suggested, adding some extra air can also be effective. I think we can agree that even color is the common goal.

I have no objection to small caps in general. Hell, I use them all the time myself. What I'm [over] reacting to is an unexamined notion that "Two or More Caps Together" in text automatically signals "Use Small Caps."

paragraph's picture

I agree with Kent and the others. All the examples in the original post require full caps in my opinion. The meaning in a dissertation surely has to come first and the looks second (lest your mate never becomes a 'real doctor').

>but I wanted to be clear and straightforward

If that's the case, I'd leave the caps well alone.

daniele capo's picture

If your text has a lot of uppercase letters, you can also try a font with a relatively small 'caps height'.

J Weltin's picture

In phototype setting times (no small caps available) it was common to set full cap acronyms half a point smaller.

charles ellertson's picture

In phototype setting times (no small caps available) it was common to set full cap acronyms half a point smaller.

Interesting observation. My experience (back to 1980 anyway) runs the other way, in phototype setting times, designer's dealing with extended text would choose a font that had small caps available. Sort of an extension of the thinking from hot metal; most type shops would have four or five or even six type families appropriate for setting extended text, and the designer would choose from those.

I suppose advertising design and composition might have been different.

Which maybe points up the range of responses in this thread. Type designers tend to think in theoretical terms, where the only theory at play is typographic theory.

Type users split into at least two groups. One is broadly termed ephemeral printing, where the display type may be most important and chosen first. Usually the amount of text is so small that manipulation of characters or their setting is not a problem. Another group would be book typography, which has different expectations about a reader (including how many hours he/she has to spend with the text). I suppose today another would be the use of type on the web, and for all I know, that breaks into multiple uses as well.

Sounding my overused trumpet yet again, The purpose of almost all type is for communication, usually in the form of reading, not hanging on a museum wall. Once you agree on that point, how you view an audience becomes a key concept. And how the (graphic) designer treats that audience is equally key; rarely is it correct for the designer to further their agenda. To do so moves you back toward "audience" in an artistic context; a work hanging on a museum wall.

Don McCahill's picture

> In phototype setting times (no small caps available) it was common to set full cap acronyms half a point smaller.

What system allowed half point increments? My memory is that the old photosetting units had fixed point sizes, like 9, 10, 12, 14, etc.

J Weltin's picture

I might be wrong (never did large scale phototype setting myself) and it was already during the first DTP (therefor digital) setting. I’ve seen it used with Univers (having no small caps) but also in novels (for the majority set in Stempel Garamond or Bembo).

charles ellertson's picture

for the majority set in Stempel Garamond or Bembo

Well, fonts were proprietary to the composing machine in photocomp days, but most Linotype photocomp machines (and I'd guess Monotype) had small capitals in both Bembo and Stempel Garamond.

J Weltin's picture

Didn’t say they hadn’t, but in those book settings they were not used – and they were not scientific.

Don McCahill's picture

I think you had to pay more to by filmstrips with the OS numbers and small caps on them in the old days. I wasn't buying back then, but worked for a tight-fisted owner who came from the newspaper business, and saw no use in buying those ... and then couldn't figure out why he couldn't get into book work.

Peter Seibel's picture

On a related note, I'm typesetting a book with lots of references to programming languages. I'd clearly like to set "BASIC" in small caps. But what about "C"? Should it be in small caps for consistency or in regular caps because it's not a big blob of all upper-case text?

Don McCahill's picture

Therein is the problem. I would print out a few sample pages, and take a look. I lean towards using the C in SC for consistency, but would really like to see a sample, and ensure that it doesn't look out of place. Also, how will languages with letters and symbols appear, like C+ and C#, if they are going to be used.

Chris Dean's picture

I couldn't find anything in my APA manual, but the typographic standards in that book are hilarious.

Florian Hardwig's picture

What Kent said. Learn to stop worrying and love the cap! There’s nothing wrong with unambiguity. Yes, it might stick out. But:
1) ‘C#’ will always stick out, no matter if it’s set in caps, smaller caps, spaced caps, small caps, or even lowercase. So do figures (Yes, old-style figures aswell).
2) A scientific text is not a novel. Even there, even color is nice, but not an end in itself.
F

JCSalomon's picture

 An engineer's viewpoint:
 “BASIC" and "UNIX" should be small-caps. But you can't do that with "C", so "C++" & "C#" also need full caps. Make sure the operators in “C++” fit nicely; I've seen too many fonts (e.g., Georgia as used on this site) where the `+' marks were too high or low. And although the language is officially called "C#", do check if "C♯" might look better.
—Joel

dtw's picture

Our typesetters kept switching to a math font to set the pluses in "C++", when the body text font was Times: but they were too high, too light, and too loosely-spaced. I think I've finally managed (through repeated requests) to get them to use the Times pluses instead :-D
________________________________________________
Ever since I chose to block pop-ups, my toaster's stopped working.

Michel Boyer's picture

Smallcaps are used in mathematical texts to typeset words like THEOREM but I don't remember having seen them for acronyms though Knuth's Computer Modern font, that is used by the American Mathematical Society, has smallcaps that are quite easy to access.

Knuth himself, for words like MIX (his computer language), uses CM Typewriter. Here is the word BASIC in CM Roman, CM Typewriter and CM Roman smallcaps.


You can see that the cap height of the typewriter font is between that of the small cap and that of the fullcap.

Here is C++ in CM Roman and CM Typewriter


Michel

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