Bad idea to use roman numerals together with old style figures?

I'm setting a text with old style figures. As usual, number 1 in this font resembles the roman numeral 1 very strongly. That's fine, since they mean the same. But I notice that when the text uses the roman numeral 2, it's virtually impossible to know whether it's the roman numeral or the old style figure 11.

I know that you can tell which is which, but that's because you know that old style figures without ascenders have x-height while the height of small caps tend to be larger than x-height. Most readers don't know this, and that difference is hard to spot when reading a text even if you _do_ know it.

So I'm wondering if it's simply a bad typographic choice to use roman numerals and old style figures in the same text, and if I should replace the roman numerals with arabic numerals instead.

In case you wonder, the roman numerals are not used haphazardly here and there. In this text they're only used as names for two groups called "Group I" and "Group II".


  • Nina Stössinger
    Given that the Roman numerals in your example don’t get very long at all, have you tried just using full caps for them?
  • Yes, the small caps was a deliberate stylistic choice, since I feel that roman numerals should preferably be in small caps. I guess my options are either roman numeral full caps or arabic numerals?
  • Christian Thalmann
    That, or using an old-style font in which the difference is more obvious.  :smile:

  • attar
    attar Posts: 209
    Roman numerals are generally caps for what I know.
  • Christian: Yes, I've been considering switching to another Garamond font (such as EB Garamond) that includes a variant of the arabic numeral 1 that's clearly distinguished from a small cap letter 'i'. That number variant is anachronistic, though (i.e. it is a modern invention that doesn't belong in a traditional Garamond font).

    Adrien: I'd love to hear more about that. I just checked in Bringhurst, and he mentions (but doesn't say if he recommends it or not) the typographic tradition of setting the roman numerals to match the surrounding style. So in my example above, it would be "Number ii".
  • joeclark
    I'm setting a text with oldstyle figures.

    As the saying goes, now you have two problems.

    You do understand Bringhurst was wrong about half the nonsense he went on about, yes? You have described a text where number identification in all forms is crucial. The underlying flaw is the use of oldstyle figures, not small caps for Roman numerals. The solution is to use neither.
  • Joe: If you feel that the use of old style figures is inherently wrong, then I don't think we can have a constructive debate here. Whether or not old style figures are wrong should be a separate discussion in its own thread.
  • Craig Eliason
    Does your font support the joined form of Roman numeral two? That would solve the problem. 

  • joeclark
    Sverre, I did discuss this before

    Do I have to explain that the purpose of typography is to make words readable? So why cling to Bringhurstian ideology when you know it doesn’t work?