dot-font: The Hyphenation of Justification

Why do we set justified text so often? And why do we read justified text so often?

The origins go back at least as far as medieval books, which were hand-written by scribes. The appeal of symmetrical blocks of text, with even right and left edges, may be a mystery, but the scribes had lots of tricks and techniques for making the righthand edge come out as even as the left. They used a host of abbreviations and ligatures — far more than we employ today — to shorten words as needed without disturbing the visual texture of the page.

Gutenberg was imitating this technique in the first European typeset books, but later printers dropped many of his ligatures and relied instead on hyphenation — and on slightly varying the space between words. (Breaking lines in the middle of words predates the invention of the hyphen. The Greeks were doing this in stone inscriptions in 500 B.C. — before they had even bothered to put a little space between words.)

Regular Readers
The bulk of printed matter, until the explosion of advertising in the late 19th century, was books. Books are inherently symmetrical, even if writing is not. Wherever you open it, a book will show you a pair of pages, facing each other across the central gutter. It suited the balanced, classical, architecturally inspired aesthetic sensibility of Renaissance printers to continue this symmetrical look, by making the blocks of text even and regular. If a title or heading wouldn’t fit neatly across a line, they’d center it. (They would even break words within these headings, in order to get a nice shape to a multi-line head.)

People got used to reading justified text, and they resisted fiercely when modern graphic designers began trying out unjustified setting (among other revolutionary ideas) early in the 20th century. We’ve all come to accept that display type — in headlines and signs and pull quotes and most advertising — looks natural when set unjustified, but it’s amazing how conservative we can be about books, magazines, and newspapers. It’s as though the calm induced by an even righthand edge makes up for any irregularities in the middle of the lines.

And there are irregularities in plenty, especially in narrow columns such as those in magazines and newspapers. Big holes between words, wildly varying spaces between letters, and sometimes astoundingly awkward word breaks at the ends of lines. Huge rivers of white space, and stacks of words and hyphens. A broken and irregular visual rhythm that makes it hard to read the text.

This is where the craft of typesetting comes in. Massaging the text until it looks right — and reads easily — is the job of a text typographer.

The Human Touch
Everything I said in my previous column about hyphenating unjustified text is true for justified text too — except that instead of worrying about the rag (what the ragged righthand edge looks like) you have to think about spacing within a line. In the days of handset type, a typesetter had to put each piece of extra space in by hand, so he (it was usually a “he”) had to choose where to put the space.

Today, the software will do the spacing for us — but it won’t necessarily do it well. The default settings in most page-layout programs tend to give very loose paragraphs, and big variations in the spacing of words and letters from line to line. To use the programs effectively, you have to tweak the setting. And even then, you’ll have to make the final decisions by eye.

Unless the column or page width is very wide (so that the lines are very long and a lot of words can fit on each line), it’s always important to hyphenate. Don’t be afraid of hyphens; as long as they’re not misleading (or really, really ugly), they’re fine. It’s easier to read a page of evenly spaced text with a bunch of hyphens than a page of erratically spaced text with nary a word broken. If you can break the words appropriately, you can avoid ugly and disruptive changes of spacing within the line.

Ideally, word space should be small — enough to distinguish one word from the next, but no more. A lot of digital typefaces give the word-space character an arbitrary width, based on the point size rather than the shape of the letters. In practice, this means that the default word spaces are often too wide, especially in narrow and condensed typefaces. But in most page-layout programs, you can choose how much of that word space to use by specifying a percentage.

Fitting In
Even more important is the amount you let the program adjust the space between words to fit words onto a line. The defaults tend to allow huge word spaces; better to force the program to try something else — like hyphenating — rather than expanding the spaces first.

Uneven word spacing is bad, but uneven letterspacing is worse. Page-layout programs can adjust the space between letters, too, to justify a line. But this is a ghastly way to treat typefaces — and readers. In good typography, only in the most extraordinary circumstances would a typesetter resort to letterspacing to justify. (If it happened twice in a book chapter or magazine article, that would be too much.) Changing the letterspacing in a line — either squeezing it or expanding it — is distracting to the reader; it disturbs the word shapes, which we read by, and it may mean that the same word repeated on two adjacent lines will look different because it’s spaced differently. We should use the software to prevent letterspacing, not to encourage it.

One last small point about justification: There’s no such thing as “justified left”; it would be “flush left” or “ranged left” or “ragged right.” In typography, “justified” means spaced so that both edges are even.

Whatever your style or aesthetic judgment, when you’re setting type, always take a discerning look at the results your software gives you, and then adjust the type accordingly. What the software gives you is merely a starting point.

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Posted on: September 28, 2000

3 Comments on dot-font: The Hyphenation of Justification

  1. I think the writer needs to be more specific about the generalizations made in regards to page layout applications. Not all page layout applications treat these issues the same. Adobe InDesign handles type, justification, ligatures, letter spacing, and glyph scaling with more control than PageMaker and Quark Xpress.

  2. I never thought about WHY, I just always preferred the justified look (and lament that there is no such option for HTML right now!)

  3. There is no substitute for the human eye in type justification. You HAVE to take a look at what your software does and tweak it here and there. Any editor worth his or her salt checks for bad word spacing and “rivers of white.” You also have to check the hyphenation for bad breaks. Anything else is just laziness.

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