How do I use oldstyle/lining figures?
July 1, 2008 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How do I use and control both oldstyle and lining figures in a word-processed document?

I know nothing about typography, really, so feel free to correct any misconceptions you spot. I got reading about figure 'case' by accident, and it's relevant to a lot of documents I have to produce - ultimately, though, all it comes down to is that I like the look...
I'm currently doing everything in OpenOffice on Vista. I'm told that there are fonts there that have both figure styles, but I can't find the alternate figures, let alone see how to get them in there.
Bonus points if you can recommend other typographic conventions for me to get needlessly and disturbingly obsessive about.
posted by monkey closet to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Each font has

-- an "x height" (the height of the lower-case x from its bottom [the "baseline] to its top)

-- a "cap height" (from the baseline to its top)

-- an "ascender height" (from the baseline to the top of ascending letters such as lower case k, which is often slightly higher than the cap height

-- a "descender" area (below the baseline)

Old-style figures are a mix of x-height (0, 1 and 2), ascenders, occupying the baseline to the ascender height (6 and 8) and descenders, occupying the top of the x-height to the bottom of the descender area (3, 4, 5, 7 and 9).

Lining figures are all ascender height or cap height.

Before the changeover from "hot type" (cast from molten lead) to computerized typesetting, old-style figures were used in text, where their mix of heights has the same "color" as alphabetic text. Lining figures have the color of text in ALL CAPS and thus stand out.

However, you want columns and rows to line up. A row with the the number 345, for example, would not line up with the next column that had 868, and a column with 345 with 868 below and then 345 would have uneven vertical space. Thus tables, tables of contents, indexes, etc. are always set with lining figures.

Switching between old-style and lining figures is fussy and expensive, due to extra coding, and so lining figures are used in almost all computer fonts. Even toward the end of the hot type era, designers were abandoning old-style figures for lining figures in text.

If you're willing to do the coding, and have typographically sophisticated readers, it might be worth it to do the switching.

To be super-sophisticated, some fonts let you choose between short descenders for y, g, q and p (which let you set type "solid" without extra space ("leading") between the lines and "long descenders" (which look better, but require extra leading.

Doing any of this runs the risk of looking old-fashioned. You make the choice depending on your readers and your own sense of design.

I use Word, which I don't think has old-style figures, at least in its standard fonts. Frankly, I doubt that anyone will notice. If you're creating a sophisticated, single page document for connoisseurs that would call for old-style figures, you'll also be making tiny "nudges" to get the kerning and overall color absolutely consistent. You may well be working in hand-set type.
posted by KRS at 1:56 PM on July 1, 2008

I don't know a lot about OpenOffice, or even typesetting in Word. I word process in Word, but I don't typeset anything that needs to look really nice.

I use Adobe In-Design for proper typesetting. When you have a full typeface family (for instance, all the various subsets of Adobe Garamond Pro, which includes both oldstyle and lining figures as part of the type family), you generally get the oldstyle figures by turning on small caps and typing your numbers.

It may be the case that, if you have a full typeface family, you would access oldstyle figures the same way in OpenOffice. I simply don't know.

The danger is that turning on small caps could cause your program to fake oldstyle figures, which will look very amateurish to anyone who knows what they are looking at (In-Design will face oldstyle figures and small caps if those sets aren't included with the typeface you're using; OpenOffice may do the same). This may or may not be a problem for you, depending on your audience.

Your best bet would be to dig through the OpenOffice documentation or contact the OpenOffice project people and ask them.
posted by Caduceus at 4:19 PM on July 1, 2008

If you really want to obsess about typographic conventions, you should read The Elements of Typographic style. Be warned that the author is a poet, and as such it is not written strictly as an instructional manual. But it's a wonderful book.

I hate to burst your bubble, but it doesn't look like openoffice supports opentype features (yet). Your only choice appears to use a font that has oldstyle figures as the default. Of the standard Windows fonts, that would be Georgia, Candara, Constantia and Corbel.
posted by O9scar at 8:06 PM on July 1, 2008

I second Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style recommendation; it is a fantastic book. Design theory and reference manual that reads like poetry. (I was lucky enough to see Bringhurst speak last summer at Typecon; he was phenomenal. He spoke about the waves of language being formed out of the discrete particles of type, as he showed us pages out of the Koran. This is the sort of imagery that flows through his book.) If the book is a bit weighty for a beginner, a fun and intelligent introduction to typography is Stop Stealing Sheep by Erik Spiekermann & E.M. Ginger. I've also found Twenty Faces very useful over the years, not just for the 20 recommended typefaces, but also for the way the author thinks and talks about typesetting.

I should also warn you that typography is an obsession that knows no bounds, and that you may want to close the door and walk away now, before it's too late. Go down this road and you'll find yourself complaining about things like incorrect quotation marks and three periods appearing in the place of a true ellipsis. You may try to talk people out of using Comic Sans and Trebuchet for their emails and garage-sale flyers. Type is everywhere, and learning the fine points of typography means opening your eyes to all the poor uses of it out there in the world. It's a great way to bore your friends to tears. You will also learn to typeset beautiful legible pages in the process.

I'm all for text figures (aka oldstyle figures) in text. They work as lowercase numbers, letting numerals speak in the same voice as the text. Lining figures are best thought of as uppercase numbers; they come in two varieties: proportional lining figures, where the spacing between the figures appears regular and even; and tabular lining figures, made for tables and columns of numbers - each figure has the same space, so that columns will all line up. (This is the default in Microsoft Office, for the sake of XL and PowerPoint.)

Mircosoft software is frustratingly difficult to use for fine typography, but I'm going to assume that you can't justify springing for InDesign. I don't think you can easily access OpenType features, which is where the text figures would be in an OpenType font. Prior to OpenType, the lining/text/tabular figure problem was usually solved with separate fonts. They were usually called "expert". For example, Adobe Garamond regular would have proportional lining figures, and Adobe Garamond Expert would have the text figures. Expert often has all sorts of other odd ligatures, or maybe smallcaps, so the trick is to use the regular face for text and switch the font to expert just for the numbers to get the text figures. Some other typefaces had lining figures in the numeral positions, and the text figures were reached with special key combinations. (Emigre did this for their fonts.)

The other thing you should know is that a lot of fonts simply don't have text figures at all.

posted by Cranialtorque at 8:27 PM on July 4, 2008

Oldstyle or ranging figures are not all proportionally spaced. Many OpenType fonts have all four combinations or oldstyle/lining and proportional/tabular. An InDesign stylesheet lets you easily select which of the four options you want. (Hint: Don’t use oldstyle figures with Canadian or British postal codes.)

You pretty much cannot control which figures are used in modern word processors – maybe Nisus on Mac, but I haven’t checked.
posted by joeclark at 3:48 PM on August 15, 2008

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