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Many standard computer fonts don’t have text (aka “old-style”, "hanging") figures, like these:

enter image description here

Also, basic software like Microsoft Office don’t use them by default, even when selecting a font that actually includes them. So, my own practice is:

  • I tend to use them in running text, if only because it gives somewhat of a more “distinguished” look
  • I don’t use them in tables or large batches of numbers (like, scientific numbers with units)

But I wonder: what is the typical advice regarding text vs. lining figures?

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2 Answers

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Technically, text figures should be used in-line with U&lc text, regardless of how long that text might be. They are also designed for use with small caps, but I tend to prefer lining, small caps figures where available. The general rule of thumb is that text figures are used where numbers are not the primary subject at hand.

The reality is that text figures became quite uncommon for a good long time, even in text. If you're doing work for a client, be careful not to be too instructive on this point since many people are convinced that text figures are just a stylistic device.

Of course, there is also plenty of precedence of text figures as a stylistic element.

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I've seen them used in page numbers (which aren't exactly "running text"). –  Martin Schröder Oct 30 '12 at 9:23
    
Good point. I guess in that case I would consider them a slightly distanced part of the text ;) Still part of a text-centered page. –  plainclothes Oct 30 '12 at 20:30
    
I think the question is: Do you really want to user lining and text numbers in a document? –  Martin Schröder Oct 30 '12 at 21:33
    
There are some exceptions for books of text. You may choose to set running heads in all caps with page or section numbers closely associated. In that case, I would recommend lining figures (proportional not tabular). Text figures would be a noticeable disruption. –  plainclothes Oct 31 '12 at 3:12
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There are four figure styles: Lining and text ("Old Style") each divide into proportional and fixed ("tabular") sets.

Tabular lining numerals are appropriate for financial tables in most office-type documents. Occasionally, where a document style calls for old style figures, tabular old style, with its period look, would be correct (corporation annual reports quite commonly use this style).

Proportional text figures look better in running text because they are designed around the x-height, descenders and ascenders of the lowercase. Lining figures are uppercase. They tend to look out of place in a run of normal text and are better replaced by small caps.

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