Bringhurst tells us that, as part of harmony and coutnerpoint, the typographer should set abbreviations and acronyms in small capitals. This is the style followed by many publications, including the Economist and the New Yorker.

However, in my writing, I have come across a dilemma: how to write mixed case abbreviations? This is most acute with degree names: I can easily write Master of Fine Arts as ᴍғᴀ, but how to do Doctor of Philosophy? ᴘhᴅ just looks wrong. How to handle this? I could make the 'h' smaller, but then the type risks being illegible. I could also just write PhD, but how can I have different rules for different degree names? I could also write ᴘʜᴅ but that implies the 'h' stands for something.

Similar issues arise with legal names (the European Court of Human Rights is ᴇᴄtʜʀ, with the 't' looking unsightly) and many other commonly used terms. Is there a way around this, or must we abandon Bringhurst's injunction?

  • 1
    A quick search of the New Yorker shows that they often show it as "Ph.D." I'm sure you could look at what the Economist does also. May 24, 2021 at 15:10
  • 1
    I, personally, don't use small caps in my work. I find them a bit pretentious (which generally isn't harmonious with my projects) and often more difficult to read.
    – Scott
    May 27, 2021 at 21:24

5 Answers 5


Bringhurst's advice is just advice ultimately, and that may or may not work, depending on your setup, typefaces being used, etc. If it looks good with the typeface(s) you're using, I would use ᴘʜᴅ without overthinking it.

European Court of Human Rights = ECHR if you look at their wiki page.

Also, some fonts don't even have true small caps built-in.


I don't know how useful I find Bringhurst's advice. Having tried it a few times, text formatted this way looks showy. It seems like his motivation is to achieve a more uniform gray value on the page by reducing the number of large capital letters, but it diverts my attention when reading, feeling like an effect for effect's sake. I think I also ran into your problem too.


One novel approach to mixed abbreviations is taken by the journal the New Criterion; to quote a recent article (emphasis added):

It came as a revelation to me that there was education beyond college,” he wrote, “and it was some time before I was clear whether an ᴍ.ᴀ. was beyond a Ph.ᴅ. or vice versa. Certainly I had no plans to get either.”

As you can see, this involves treating the letter proceeding the lower case as a normal capital, but the rest of the abbreviation as small capitals.

  • Well, that certainly fails the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ criterion. May 27, 2021 at 19:16

The Economist seems fine with the small capitals alongside normal sized lowercase (ie, ᴘhᴅ)—see here:

Economists have long sought work experience before embarking on a ᴘhᴅ, whether in consultancy, the public sector or finance. But over the past decade or so the nature of the experience has changed. A study by Kevin Bryan of the University of Toronto examined the cvs of sought-after economists, and found that none of those applying for economics jobs in 2013-14 had been research assistants at academic institutions before they began their ᴘhᴅs, but around a fifth of those graduating in 2017-18 had.


Yet another approach is found in the New Yorker:

The institute’s work included experiments on the bat coronaviruses that are among the closest known relatives to sᴀʀs-CoV-2, which causes ᴄᴏᴠɪᴅ-19.

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