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Old-Style Versus Lining Figures

Old-style figures work best in some contexts. (Photo by Duval Guillaume.)

Something you might or might not notice when you read a book or journal article is the style of any numerals that turn up in the text. If you don’t notice, that’s a good thing, and it is probably thanks to a professional graphic designer who put some thought into specifying the right style for that text.

The most basic choice is between old-style and lining (or modern) figures. Old-style figures are more elegant within a line of text because they vary in height and width and variously extend above or below the line, which allows them to blend in nicely with the letters of a proportional font:

 

Lining figures, in contrast, are of uniform height and width:

 

Although designers tend to find lining figures intrusive in a line of text, their uniformity is preferred in some contexts, such as table columns, which make better visual sense relative to each other when the numbers align neatly:

Old-style figures

Lining figures

Since the exact appearance of each numeral varies from one typeface to another, a graphic designer will consider the entire set of a chosen font in light of the numeric content of the text to make sure the numbers will be readable in all cases. Whether old-style or modern, ones and zeroes can be troublesome if the one looks like an uppercase letter I or  lowercase L, or when the zero looks like a letter o.

Here, in Constantia, is a lowercase letter o followed by an old-style zero:

 

And in Times New Roman, a lowercase letter ell and a lining figure number one:

 

In their natural habitats, numbers will not usually be mistaken for letters, but encountered in the wild—say, in expressions that mix numbers and letters such as URL’s or street addresses—they can be harder to identify. In one book I copy-edited, the page proofs had to be rerun after we saw that tables full of Unicode numbers, which consist of both letters and numbers, were where not reliably readable in the chosen font.

One interesting option in a clean-up macro* I run on new manuscripts is to “change ells used as ones to ones.” Why would anyone use the ell key to type a numeral 1? Readers of a certain age will recall that on a typewriter there is no key for the numeral 1, so ones have to be typed using the ell key. Typists who have carried that habit down through the decades and onto their computer keyboards might be surprised to find oddities in their page proofs when their faked numbers are exposed as ells. (Although typewriters do have a key for zero, my macro also includes an option to “change O’s used as zeroes to zeroes.” It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a demand for this option; I’m well used to the oblivious creativity of writers.)

Unfortunately, e-book formats don’t yet accommodate more than a couple of choices in typeface. A quick browse of books on my Kindle turned up no old-style numbers. Granted, there aren’t many projects whose readability hinges on number style. But having the right kind of numbers is just one of many small refinements we enjoy in professionally designed books that in time e-books should aim to achieve.

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*FileCleaner, by Editorium.

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Readers with questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing may e-mail Carol at AskCarolSaller@gmail.com.


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