Typesetting Numbers

Have you noticed how some fonts have a 3 or a 9 that hangs below the baseline making them appear larger than the 1 or 2 while the 8 rises above them all? Other fonts have numbers that all line up neatly from top to bottom. What you're seeing are Old Style and Lining Figures. You may have heard of both terms, but are you familiar with the differences between Proportional Lining Figures and Tabular Lining Figures? It's most noticeable when trying to line up columns of numbers. Old Style also comes in Proportional and Tabular styles. On this and the following pages discover the differences in each style, how to find them in a font, and when to use each style.

Defining Old Style, Lining, Proportional, and Tabular Figures

Proportional and Tabular Numbers in Old Style and Lining Figures

J. Bear

Old Style Figures (OsF)

Also called non-lining figures, these Arabic numerals are not all the same height and some extend above and others below the baseline (like the ascenders and descenders on some lowercase letters).

In the illustration, above, the 1 appears in the style of the letter I in the Old Style figures. That's a feature of the font (Adobe Caslon Pro) and not necessarily the way the 1 appears in all Old Style figures.

Old Style, OldStyle, oldstyle, and old-style are all acceptable spellings.

Lining Figures (LF)

A modern style of numerals also known as short ranging figures or regular numerals, lining figures are all the same height and all figures sit on the baseline. They are generally the same height as the uppercase letters in the typeface.


With proportional figures, each character may occupy a different amount of horizontal space. A 1 takes up less space than a 5 or a 9.

Tabular (TF)

Tabular figures are monospaced. Each character takes up the same amount of horizontal space.

Choosing Your Figures

So, which is better? It really depends on how you plan to use the numbers. Old Style figures blend in well within a paragraph of text while lining figures work well with all caps and when alignment is more important than blending in. On the next page, discover best uses for each style. On subsequent pages learn how to access the various number styles of OpenType fonts in several software programs.

Designing With Old Style, Lining, Proportional, and Tabular Figures

When to use proportional old style or lining figures vs. tabular old style or lining figures

J. Bear

Proportional Old Style Figures are attractive within a paragraph of text because the varying height visually blends in with the ups and downs of mixed uppercase and lowercase letters. They don't work as well within text set in all caps. If you like the look, use them in books, newsletters, and brochures.

  • Proportional Lining Figures work well when used with proportional text set in all caps because the numbers will all sit on the baseline with the capital letters. Because the characters have varying widths they don't work as well in columns of numbers.
  • Tabular Old Style Figures is an option when you like the look of figures with varying heights but you need the numbers to line up in columns such as in financial documents, tables, charts, or numbered lists. Because they are monospaced, tabular figures may not look as well in headlines and other display text that includes numbers. Instead of doing a lot of kerning to close up the extra space around a 1, for instance, go with proportional figures.
  • Tabular Lining Figures keep all your numbers lined up in tables and columns while also lining up horizontally with capital letters and currency symbols. As with Tabular Old Style, these often don't look as good at display sizes where lining up in columns is not needed.

For more on using various number styles and widths see: Figuring It Out: OSF, LF, and TF Explained by Ivo Gabrowitsch, Old-Style Versus Lining Figures by Carol Saller, and Proportional vs. Tabular Figures by Ilene Strizver.

Accessing OpenType Number Forms in Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress

Finding Number styles in Adobe InDesign

J. Bear

Many of today's OpenType Fonts come with two or more styles of figures. Not all software can access all the number forms in an OpenType font and even with software that does it can require a little trial and error to see which styles are included.

For Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress you would highlight the text to which you wanted to apply a number style other than the default, access the OpenType palette, then choose the figure style from there. However, you may have to use some trial and error as explained by Ilene Strizver in OpenType Numerals:

"At this time, neither the Quark nor InDesign OpenType palettes have a perfect system for showing the user which figure styles are available in any given typeface. In both applications, you can use the glyph palette to find out whether oldstyle and lining numerals are included in your typeface, but the glyph palette won’t tell you whether proportional or tabular versions are included."

In Adobe CS4 and above unavailable number styles in the OpenType menu will have square brackets around the option.

Accessing OpenType Number Forms in Microsoft Publisher and Word 2010

Add number styles to Publisher and Word documents

J. Bear

Select your text in your Publisher 2010 document then display the Font Dialog. Under OpenType features choose from available number styles. For fonts without extra features, the OpenType options will be grayed out.

In Microsoft Word 2010, highlight the text you want to change and open the Font Dialog (Ctrl+D), select the Advanced Tab, then choose your desired Number Spacing (Proportional or Tabular) and Number Form (Lining or Old-style).

Accessing OpenType Number Forms in Serif PagePlus

Format your numbers in PagePlus with available numeric options.

J. Bear

Serif PagePlus X5 added OpenType features. The screenshots, above, are from the X5 User Guide. To apply OpenType features (when available), select your text then open the OpenType flyout and select from the available numeric options. You can also apply features to text styles for quick formatting by selecting Format > Character then, the Character - OpenType option. If available, styles and widths will be under the Numeric section.