How to Use Initial Caps to Best Effect

Initial caps draw attention to text in a page layout

An oversized letter at the start of an article or paragraph is known as an initial cap. The more common term is dropped cap, although drop caps are just one style of initial cap. The enlarged letters may be set in the same typestyle as the accompanying text, but they are often a different, sometimes highly ornate letter or graphic. The purpose of initial caps is to draw attention to the text and draw the reader into the narrative. They serve as a visual cue to the start of a new article or chapter or section of a longer text.

Styles of Initial Caps

Initial caps come in three related varieties:

  • Adjacent Caps — appear to the side of a block of text. They are larger than the text of the paragraph they accompany but outside its margins to the left of the paragraph. The large-cap character aligns with the baseline of one of the lines of text and usually extends above the top line of text.
  • Dropped Capslarge letters dropped into indented lines of text. The dropped cap is within the text of the paragraph and shares the same left alignment. The dropped cap extends from the top of the paragraph to the baseline of one of the lines of text. A common example of a dropped cap may be exactly as tall as three lines of text.
  • Raised Caps — indicate larger letters at the start of the paragraph. They usually share the same baseline as the first or second line of the text.

Creating Initial Caps

Depending on the style of initial cap, the letter is often created using automated scripts or macros found in most desktop publishing and word processing software programs. Space to create the enlarged letter can be created automatically or manually by indenting lines of type or using the text wrap features of the software. The initial cap can be an actual text font or it may be a graphic image.

Fine-Tuning Initial Caps

Some letters fit neatly into the square space that most automated drop cap scripts create. Others don't line up so nicely and the initial cap and its accompanying text may need manual manipulation to improve the appearance and the readability of the text. Special cases call for special treatment:

  • When the paragraph begins with a quotation that cannot be rewritten, eliminate the quote mark before an initial cap.
  • Position initial caps in the top third of the page. They are heavy and shouldn't be used near the bottom of a page.
  • If your initial caps are elaborate decorative letters, use them sparsely. More than one on a page will fight for viewer attention.
  • Adjust the type to eliminate the extra white space that occurs when the initial cap is an A, V, or L. 
  • Script fonts can be used effectively as initial caps but their positioning may need to be adjusted because they often have long tails on their letters. One way to minimize this effect is to use the script initial cap in a color that is light enough that the black text can print on top of the tail and still be readable.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bear, Jacci Howard. "How to Use Initial Caps to Best Effect." ThoughtCo, Nov. 18, 2021, Bear, Jacci Howard. (2021, November 18). How to Use Initial Caps to Best Effect. Retrieved from Bear, Jacci Howard. "How to Use Initial Caps to Best Effect." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).