It is perhaps the most abiding of today’s typographical conventions: indenting the first line of a paragraph. For those trained on typewriters, it’s almost a tic: Return, Tab. Software has enshrined this in its default text styles, and no sooner is your new text processor or page layout program installed then it’s creating paragraph indents for you automatically. But where did this convention come from, and in the 21st century does it still have role to play?
Part of the practice of sound typography is to supply readers with visual cues that cast light on the structure and organization of documents and the relative roles of different text elements on a page. Many of these cues have the additional role of helping to provide some spatial relief in what could otherwise be a page of gray, unrelenting text, which can exhaust a reader preemptively. It’s bad enough to leave readers gasping at the end of the text, but to discourage a reader from entering a page to begin with is even worse.
Paragraph indents play both roles, but it wasn’t always so, and their rise is part of a historical trend toward the development of visual conventions that make reading easier. The evolution of typographic structural cues has been continuous. If you go back to Roman manuscripts, for example, you find that they didn’t even use punctuation. The boundaries of sentences were divined by the position of principal verbs. By the middle ages, paragraph indention was often used, but not always in the form we now find familiar, as seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The 9th-century scribe who wrote this page took care that the paragraphs within it were distinct from one another, but chose to use what we would call hanging indents rather than first-line indents. Slightly enlarged initial capitals added emphasis.
But as often as not, text was written as one long, running stream, with no relief save for the occasional fleuron or dash of color to indicate breaks in thought. This practice continued after the birth of printing, when printers sought to maintain a look that was familiar to readers of calligraphic texts. Figure 2 shows one such page, which to the modern eye is a forbidding slab. In Figure 3, Gutenberg uses simple splashes of color between verses, which was far more economical with precious paper than breaking lines short and indenting new ones.
Figure 2: When Ulrich Han printed this page in 1471, he followed the calligraphic tradition of the epoch, which meant little or no distinctions between paragraphs.
Figure 3: In Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, he used subtle colored markings to call out the verse breaks and hand-colored initial capitals for chapter breaks.
By the mid-16th century, though, printed type had broken free of its calligraphic apron strings, and the new technology spawned its own idiomatic visual styles. One of the early new standards was the paragraph indent. To what extent its appearance was in response to the preferences of a burgeoning reading public has, as far as I can tell, yet to be documented. But even the first generation of commercial printers realized the importance of luring readers through more accessible typography.
Interestingly, during the arts and crafts movement of the 19th century, many printers—notable among them William Morris—in their quest to return to what they saw as a golden age of print, opted out of the custom of paragraph indention, as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: In this biblical text printed by William Morris in 1892, all text is run in with paragraph breaks indicated by in-line paragraph symbols. To a modern eye, accustomed to the relative spatial openness afforded by short last paragraph lines and paragraph indents, the effect here seems rather mean.
These days, the consensus of the vast majority of printers, designers, typographers, and editors is that the paragraph indent is a vital part of the construction and understanding of a printed page. Typography serves content and comprehension, and key to the power of the message is the clarity of its editorial construction. Because paragraphs are vital building blocks of communication, they must not be camouflaged. Paragraph indents are the easiest way to put the structure of the text in high relief, because they allow the lines of text to remain on a consistent leading, adhering easily to a unifying page grid.
Extra leading between paragraphs can have the same visual punctuating effect, but at the risk of allowing the text to appear disjointed, broken into tiles that can disturb the flow of the text.
But some form of spatial paragraph punctuation must be preserved in any case, intoned Stanley Morison (this time in an essay for the Encyclopedia Britannica): “Absence of indention and of lead means the virtual extinction of the paragraph.” And clearly, paragraph extinction is something we should work to avoid.
Nevertheless, in the never-ending search for fresh or eye-catching new layouts, many publications opt out of paragraph indention. To my eye, this rarely works. In ragged-right settings, long last lines of paragraphs obscure the beginning of the next paragraph. In copy with justified margins, where this effect is mitigated, the absence of variation in the left-hand margin yields a slab-like appearance that I was taught to call “tombstoning.” It gives text a foreboding appearance, as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: This copy from the French daily Liberation eschews paragraph indention in both ragged-right and fully justified lines. In the upper sample, it gives the layout a clogged feel, and in ragged-right column below, one of the two paragraph breaks is effectively invisible.
One place where the absence of paragraph indents often works well is in the genre popularly called “coffee-table books.” In these usually large-format volumes, text is often secondary to image, and typography trends to the decorative more than the strictly functional. Exaggerated leading, whimsical margin treatments, and extra leading instead of paragraph indents are all elements used to add air to the layout and create a more relaxed and graphical page structure. It’s all part of a strategy for dealing with a huge page. In the end, it’s more conducive to grazing rather than concentrated reading. An extraordinary example appears in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Gigantism in type, in a 1969 catalogue of Giacometti drawings published by Maeght Editeur. At 470 pixels wide here, it’s hard to get a feel for how extraordinary this page is. At 11 by 15 inches, its type is theatrical in scale: 16/32 over a 45-pica measure, with two full line spaces between paragraphs. It’s more than a bit over the top.
So if you are going to use paragraph indents, how big should they be? The short answer is “big enough to matter, small enough not to create problems.” Ultimately, the size of a paragraph indent should relate to the measure. In narrow columns—say, in a newspaper—one-em indents are a common standard (11-point type, 11-point indents).
Words into Type, that revered guide to manuscript preparation and printing, offers the following formula: for measures up to 27 picas, one-em; for measures from 28 to 35 picas, an em-en indent; and for measures over 36 picas, 2 ems. A 2-em indent for a 36-pica line may strike some as a bit, well, Puritan. But deep paragraph indents run the risk of exaggerating the impact of short last lines in preceding paragraphs (widows). As seen in Figure 7, a deep first-line indent following a short last line can create the effect of a widow where one might not have appeared before. Dramatically deep paragraph indents, then, can have the effect of chopping up the harmonious affect of a column of type.
Figure 7: The upper sample here is the standard type treatment—with one-em paragraph indents—found in the New York Review of Books. Below, I doctored the type in Photoshop to illustrate the effect of a four-em indent in the same layout. The result is to create a problem widow where one didn’t exist before, a consequence that would occur regardless of measure.
Finally, any paragraph indent in ragged-right copy has to be in proportion to the wildness of the rag. Where rags are wild, paragraph indents will have to be relatively wide for them to have any impact. A one-em indent will probably look too puny in a text with a wild rag, especially if the measure is narrow. Unhyphenated text is a case in point. Paragraph indents in ragged-left copy are a waste of time: they get lost in the sauce.
What’s expected can always be confused with what’s necessary, and this has always been true with type. But the passage of centuries has a way of festering out typographic practices that, while once standard, didn’t turn out to be necessities after all. Paragraph indents are among the most long-lived of typographic conventions, and while this isn’t a proof of their necessity, it’s certainly a testament to their utility.