There is a recent question on the Graphic Design SE asking: Why don't upper case numbers exist?

There is also a heavily upvoted answer saying that upper and lower case numbers do exist, and that what I've found to be called "Text Figures" are in fact a lower case version of numbers.

Example of upper vs lower case from question:

This doesn't make sense to me for too many reasons to list here, and I'm worried that it's a perpetuation of misinformation. I think "lower case" should only be a colloquial description to make it easy to describe in conversation, but the definitions do not reconcile.

However, I'm not an English or Number History(?) Specialist, so I can't be 100% sure. I'd actually be happy to be wrong.

Can anyone tell me if this is a correct way to describe these concepts?

  • 4
    No. It's not about the position of the character with respect to the base line that distinguishes "uppercase" and "lowercase." By definition, case applies to alphabets (letters) only. In case of alphabets, the character shape significantly varies cf. A and a. They are called so by the printing trade because in the hand compositing days, the "capital" letters were stored in the upper drawer (case) and the "small" ones in the lower. See "case" (letter case) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_case
    – Kris
    Jun 6, 2015 at 13:36
  • 2
    However, in typography design, the terms "uppercase" and "lowercase" are used by some as synonyms for Lining numerals and Old-Style numerals See: 6picas.com/numerals See also: books.google.co.in/…
    – Kris
    Jun 6, 2015 at 13:36
  • 2
    @Kris The problem is that that applies to the numbers as well: the lining numbers were frequently placed in the upper case along with uppercase letters, and by that logic they are ‘uppercase’ numbers. From a purely shape-based (and typographer-drawer-position-based) perspective, it makes good sense to see lining numbers as the uppercase equivalents of text numbers. But from a usage perspective, it makes no sense, since the functional difference between upper- and lowercase letters is entirely orthogonal to the difference in usage between lining and text figures. [cont’d→] Jun 6, 2015 at 14:19
  • 3
    [→cont’d] As is so often the case with “is this correct?” questions regarding language, it depends: correct to whom? To me, the answer to this question is no—calling them upper- and lowercase numbers is utterly foreign to me, and makes little sense. To me, the terms ‘uppercase’ and ‘lowercase’ are today deeply entrenched in their functional, rather than their formal, perspective. But since there are no authorities to label something uniformly correct or incorrect, personal opinions like that are probably about as good as we can get on this. Jun 6, 2015 at 14:22
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet I appreciate your input, and lack of a downvote :) but I think that for Stack Exchange to be an authoritative resource it should be held to standards of accuracy. It would be fine to label them like this, and then state that it is a typography-specific description. Instead, a mod no less, has categorically stated that these are upper and lower case numbers, and so anyone who doesn't know more will just leave with that definitive fact, which ultimately is incorrect (I think, hence my question).
    – Dom
    Jun 6, 2015 at 14:27

1 Answer 1


a. Printing. On a compositor's frame: either of two shallow trays divided into compartments in order to hold printing type.

If a set did indeed have different sorts for the different types of digits, then the equal-height digits would be in the upper case and the differing-height digits would be in the lower case.

b. Typogr. Each of the two forms, capital or minuscule, in which a letter of the alphabet may be written or printed.

A majuscule form has a generally equal or near-equal size for the different glyphs, with their generally reaching from the base line to the cap-height bar perhaps some curves reaching slightly above or below that to give a better sense of balance (so that they look like they are going from the base line to the cap-height). This is true of the equal-height digits.

A minuscule form varies in height, with some perhaps reaching up to the ascender height (or perhaps just the cap height) and some reaching down to the descender height. This is true of the different-height digits.

We can also consider the uses. When different-height digits are used they are used in runs of text, where one also uses minuscule letters. When using such digits one would generally still use equal-height digits if used with text that was capitalised.

Really, in any use that makes use of these, digits are bicameral and the equal-height digits are correctly called "upper case" or majuscule while the different-height digits are correctly called "lower case" or minuscule. There's no technical argument for calling them anything else.

In a use that doesn't make use of them, digits are unicameral. It still make sense to refer to digits as "upper case" or majuscule, because of the history of how they came into fonts, and also because many fonts do have lower-case digits in them, albeit not easily available to users with most applications.

  • I just saw this answer now. I’m guessing your quotes are from a dictionary definition of case, but could you edit in more detail/links? As for usage, I have to disagree that there is no argument for calling them anything else. By far the most common usage of uppercase letters today is to capitalise proper nouns, sentences, and various other words; lining numbers are never used for this purpose. You may use lining numbers with text written all in lining (i.e., uppercase) letters, but in normal writing, a name like 42nd Street would never be written with a lining 4 and an oldstyle 2. Oct 6, 2016 at 14:51

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