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In the world of typography, small caps are uppercase glyphs that are modified and reduced to the size of lowercase letters. In essence, they are lowercase letters that appear as capitals.

Small caps are not simply scaled-down uppercase letters; their outlines are designed to work at smaller sizes and blend harmoniously with other styles in their font family, similar to how a true italic style has a unique design that fits in with its font siblings.

Old leather suitcase with the words Small Caps on it overlaid on old movable wooden type

How Are Small Caps Different?

For greater legibility at small sizes, when compared to their regular cap counterparts, small cap glyphs (as pictured in blue):

  • Are wider overall
  • Are heavier in weight
  • Have taller serifs than their regular cap counterparts
  • Have more space between letters

The result is that small caps have a greater visual impact since simply reducing regular caps to smaller point sizes results in thinner strokes that create a lighter appearance than small caps.

Image that shows how small caps are not as wide as upper-case versions of the same character

Small caps are wider, heavier, and are
looser than regular capital letters

How Tall is Small?

In most cases, small cap glyphs are about the same height or slightly larger than a font’s x-height, which is the height of most of the lowercase letters in the font. Font x-heights can vary from 40% to as much as 80% of the height of uppercase letters with the average above 50%.

Font preview depicting the x-height for roman and small cap versions of the same font

Most small cap fonts have an x-height that’s about
the same or slightly taller than the font’s roman style

Screenshot of the lower pane controls in FontAgent's main window

Controls in the bottom pane let you customize your sample sheets

However, when fonts have low x-heights, their small caps tend to run somewhat taller on a percentage basis. When this occurs, the font sometimes includes a petite caps style whose height equals its x-height, with a substantially taller small caps style.

Avoid App-Generated Small Caps

Some applications, including leading word processors and page layout programs, allow you to define a type style or convert mixed-cased text strings to small caps automatically. While some of those apps recognize small cap fonts, most of them create fake small caps by converting lowercase letters to uppercase letters and reducing their size by a few points.

This approach might be easier for users, but its results are often unacceptable. The converted characters can look out of place since they lack the slightly heavier weight and increased letter spaces of real small cap styles. If you have the time and patience to add a half- or full-point to the letter spacing and tinker with character weight, you might be able to produce decent type. But the best practice is to use real small cap fonts and avoid the imposters created on-the-fly inside applications.

Places to Use Small Caps

There are no established rules for the use of small caps and designers have varying opinions on where and when to use them. Here are some popular places you’ll find small cap fonts in contemporary designs:

  • Titles, subtitles or bylines on title and section pages
  • Page headers and footers
  • Acronyms, especially for company names
  • Figure or chart numbers in captions and footnotes
  • After a large initial cap at the beginning of a paragraph
  • Short headings, especially those centered between paragraphs
  • When they are the dominant text or only copy on a page
  • Where emphasis is required but boldface isn’t appropriate

Rules to Follow When Using Small Caps

Here are some rules and practices to follow when you’re looking at deploying these diminutive devils:

  • Use small caps with restraint and don’t overdo it
  • Use small caps to provide emphasis that is less dominant than all uppercase text
  • Don’t use small caps to emphasize in-line passages where italics feel more natural
  • Turn on kerning and add letter spacing when using small caps
  • Don’t bold small caps since they are designed to appear in their native weight
  • Use mixed case instead of capitals for longer text strings
  • Don’t set entire sentences or paragraphs in capitals (unless you are a lawyer and don’t care about readability)

These simple rules can help you make small caps an integral part of your typographic toolbox. Use them judiciously and they can have an impressive impact on your designs and documents.