This question is a follow-up to Typesetting the Year in an Old Style.

Consider the following is the code taken from the posted answer which I accepted:


1882 vs. \oldstylenums{1882}

1878 vs. \oldstylenums{1878}

with the output

enter image description here

I am trying to understand the display protocol underlying the \oldstylenumscommand.

Notice that when the command is applied to 1882, the two middle digits (both 8 in this case) are consecutively displayed on the same horizontal; however, in the case of the year 1878, the digit 7 is place below the horizontal occupied by the two eights.

QUESTION: Can anyone explain how the \oldstylenums command displays digits in the old style?

Thank you.


2 Answers 2


There is no protocol. In handwriting, digits came to be represented like letters are, some with ascenders, some with descenders and some without.

The standard usage was that 0, 1 and 2 had neither ascenders nor descenders; 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 had a descender (and no ascender); 6 and 8 had ascenders (and no descender). The usage went on when printing became common.

enter image description here

This is a page from Napier's “Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio” of 1614 (image from Wikipedia, public domain)

enter image description here

At some point in time digits started to be also printed with the same height as capital letters. A more recent table of logarithms (image from eBay)

enter image description here

clearly shows why this choice was made: readability of long lists of numbers is obviously improved; on the other hand, “old style” digits (better, lowercase digits) blend better with running text.

Lowercase digits went somewhat out of fashion in the last century and uppercase digits have been the choice for every technical book, for better readability of numbers. However, publishers of fiction have continued to use lowercase digits to this day.

By the way, lowercase digits aren't “for years”. Using them is a precise typographic decision. For instance, I see no problem in printing page numbers or even also section numbers or dates with lowercase digits in a text where numbers are extensively used in their mathematical meaning.

As usual, the important concept to keep your attention on is consistency.

Please, if you decide to use lowercase digits for numbers not meant in their mathematical sense (page numbers, section numbers or dates), don't try and align the page numbers in the table of contents. Bringhurst's remark applies much more strongly to this case: page numbers aren't to be added together, so there's no reason for aligning them.

  • Many thanks for this comprehensive answer.
    – DDS
    Commented Jun 20 at 10:13

Try using \oldstylenums{11223344556677889900}.

The figure is not about the position, or even odd. For example all the 8 in oldstyle look the same. And so on.

  • I tried your suggestion; thank you. So, may I infer that how a digit is displayed in the output of \oldstylenums will be how it is displayed (in terms of fontsize and horizontal position always? --- some digits are smaller such as 1 and 2; and not all are positioned on the same horizontal as others.
    – DDS
    Commented Jun 20 at 1:53
  • 2
    Yes. The digits are always the same and it depends of the font. Some fonts doesn't support oldstylenums
    – Mane32
    Commented Jun 20 at 2:08
  • @DDS they are all placed on the same horizontal baseline, tex isn't moving any of them just as it doesn't move y or p in yoop it's just that some characters have descenders and hang below the baseline Commented Jun 20 at 7:59

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