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I've gotten into the habit of using small capital letters every time I write a last name (both in LaTeX and by hand). Is this a good practice? Are there any recommendations on this subject?

I mainly write in English and French.

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    I see this regularly in French texts, for English is it not that usual. – samcarter_is_at_topanswers.xyz Jan 5 '20 at 14:06
  • If you want to hear the opinion of some native speakers, you could try a question at texnique.fr/osqa – samcarter_is_at_topanswers.xyz Jan 5 '20 at 14:09
  • I am myself a native speaker but thank you! – Blincer Jan 5 '20 at 14:15
  • If it's written in English I would say no. Although ultimately it might depend on the style of typography used in the document - I wouldn't say there is a rule against it, but it's certainly not usual in English, in handwriting or print. I'm a native English speaker. Can't speak for the French. – Billy Kerr Jan 5 '20 at 14:46
  • Appreciate the feedback – Blincer Jan 5 '20 at 15:13
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I am not providing any references but some information on how to make an informed choice yourself:

  • One of the main purposes of typographical emphasis is to help the reader: For example, boldfacing may draw attention similar to spoken emphasis and italicising the title of a work you discuss tells the reader that its words means something different than usual.

    Now proper names are marked by capitalisation anyway¹, which reduces the need to mark them by other means. Importantly, personal names are rarely confusable with something else. A noteworthy exception is when you have lots of names lumped together, e.g., in a list of scientific citations. Here using small caps helps the reader to see where the list of names ends, so they can skip over them.

  • Another advantage of highlighting personal names is that you can easily skim the text for them. For example going through all small-caps words may quickly tell you whether an author of interest is discussed in a piece of secondary literature. This can be relevant for some kinds of text, while it is completely irrelevant for others.

  • Highlighting names with small caps are fancy and a sign of effort, which may be worthwhile in some situations, not only to show off but also to make your text more “exciting” for the reader.

  • Overuse of typographical emphasis impedes readability, as the reader’s brain has to “switch modes” all the time. Also, small caps are more difficult to read than regular text, lacking ascenders and descenders. However, this has little impact if your texts aren’t full of names.

  • Mind that if you want to use small caps for names consistently, you may quickly come into a situation where you need to combine them with other types of typographic emphasis, e.g., for headings. This can be a problem if your font only supports proper small caps for its regular style.

  • It may be difficult to draw a consistent line. Do you use small caps for Petri dishes, Abelian groups, Platonic love, or dewar?

  • Using small-caps for last names only exacerbates some of the above problems, e.g., by adding a switch of typographical emphasis in the middle of a name or fringe cases such as Galileo. I would only do this if the distinction between first and last names is important in your text and confusion of the two is likely.

¹ unless you are using the German capitalisation paradigm

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I'd say this is a matter of choice and there's no written rule of this being good or bad practice.

Also, it may or may not work depending on the actual typeface being used, as some fonts don't even have a true small caps set. Both books below will approach this subject in one way or another, but again they won't give a consistent answer.

That said, look at this picture taken from the first book above, page 333. The distortion in the photo can be a bit confusing, but those are definitely small caps being used on full names in a 'high-profile' typography book.

enter image description here

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  • Thanks! Do you have the exact quotation? – Blincer Jan 5 '20 at 13:15
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    @Lucian - isn't this question about last names (i.e. surnames), not abbreviations? – Billy Kerr Jan 5 '20 at 13:43
  • Ok i've made time for this and found something which may be relevant so there we go :) – Lucian Jan 7 '20 at 22:34
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    I think the example you posted is a very specific case where one would have hanging paragraphs beginning with a name. The small caps names are there for stylistic effect to draw attention to the name, not as a general rule to set all surnames in small caps (as asked by the OP). – Billy Kerr Jan 8 '20 at 12:09
  • As I mentioned, there's no general rule. The book has another section on small caps on pages 40-something, which does not list this as a rule specifically. – Lucian Jan 8 '20 at 12:10

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