Justified Text Versus Ragged-Right Text

In most printed text that I read, whether in books, magazines, or newspapers, the margins are justified. Here’s how James Felici, The Complete Manual of Typography (2003), defines “justified margins”:

justified margins A text alignment in which the type in each line of a column completely fills the measure. This creates straight, (usually) vertical margins on both left and right. To achieve justified margins, a composition program must flex the spaces on a line, compressing them or expanding them.

The conventional alternative is a ragged right margin. Here, again, is Felici:

ragged right A text margin treatment in which all lines begin hard against the left-hand margin but are allowed to end short of the right-hand margin. On lines that do not fully fill the measure (nearly all of them), any leftover space is deposited along the right-hand margin. This creates an irregular margin along the right side of the text column.

Although as a general matter I have no problem reading justified text, I dislike it intensely in word-processed documents, including contracts, because I find that it makes them much harder to read. If you wish to do a quick readability test of your own, here is a document with justified, one-inch-margin, 12-point Times New Roman text; here is the same document with a ragged right margin.

I’ve long wondered what renders justified harder to read. I used to think that the problem was that by normal typographic standards, word-processed documents on letter-sized paper contain a relatively high number of characters. (That’s the explanation I offer in MSCD 12.3.)

An unjustified line of 12-point Times New Roman on letter-sized paper with one-inch margins (the standard setup at law firms) contains on average between 77 and 80 characters. That’s more than any recommended limits I’ve seen. For example, Felici says that “the optimal line length is nine or ten words (figure an average of 5 1/2 characters a word),” in other words around 50 to 55 characters. (By the way, I’m not taking into account two-column documents: after flirting with a two-column format, I decided, with the help of some prodding by readers, that it wouldn’t be viable for contracts.)

The high per-line character count in contracts and other word-processed legal documents certainly makes them harder to read. I also thought that because of the high per-line character count, the eye relies that much more on a ragged right margin to help you not lose track of which line you’re on. That help wouldn’t be available when the margins are justified.

But I now think that’s an insufficient explanation for what makes justified text harder to read. For one thing, I find text with justified margins annoying in word-processed documents even when the per-line character count is within recommended limits, as in a two-column document. See if you agree with me: here is a two-column document with justified, one-inch-margin, 12-point Times New Roman text; here is the same document with a ragged right margin.

So if the per-line character count isn’t an adequate explanation, what is? For insight, I consulted Ellen Lupton. Ellen is director of the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore and curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. She’s also author of Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students. It’s a very informative and wonderfully designed book.

Here’s what Ellen had to say:

The reason that text with justified margins looks bad in a single-column Word document is that subtle word-spacing and letter-spacing algorithms are needed to make justified text look “good,” and Word’s aren’t up the job. So it’s not really the column width that’s the problem, but rather limitations in the software. Many beautiful books are set in single-column justified pages, but they have been properly typeset. Word documents simply should not be justified.

After chewing that over, I’ve come to see that Ellen’s explanation makes sense. When it’s done properly, with good letter spacing, word spacing, and hyphenation, justified text is pleasing to the eye. And it also saves space, because playing with spacing and hyphenation allows you to fit more words on a page. But doing it properly requires a careful designer using a professional page-layout program. That’s a far cry from creating a document using Word or other word-processing software.

Another problem with justified text is that it’s prone to “rivers.” According to Felici, “Rivers occur when word spaces stack one above the other in successive lines of type, creating the appearance of fissuers running through the text.” But rivers have no bearing on whether justified text makes legal documents harder to read: as Ellen notes in her book, it’s narrow columns of justified text that are particularly prone to rivers, and the text in single-column legal documents certainly isn’t narrow.

Does justified text have anything going for it for purposes of word-processed documents? Well, its defenders will tell you that it looks “professional.” But it’s a phony professionalism, in that it comes at the expense of readability, which should be the first priority of any kind of typesetting, including word processing.

So I recommend that you stop using full justification in your word-processed documents, just as you’ve stopped using two spaces after punctuation.

You have stopped using two spaces, haven’t you?

  • http://www.mhlaw.ca Jill

    I completely agree with your comments on justification but have had a hard time convincing other people I work with! I am still using two spaces after periods.

  • Michael Fleming

    I was actually accused by another lawyer (in friendly jest, but with due seriousness regarding the underlying point) of being a ‘freak’ because I was advocating the unnatural practice of one space. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

  • http://typographi.com Stephen

    I find the best way to convince people to abandon the double space between sentences is to ask them to look at virtually any book, magazine, or newspaper, and they’ll find that professionals use only one.

    I’m glad you’re covering these issues for your community, Kenneth. As a typographer I’ve struggled to help folks see the ragged-right light for years. Perhaps only when newspapers and other documents start to change, so will the rest of us. And they are changing.

  • fitz

    Ken, one lawyerly thing to note about justification and word processing software… most people are not expert users, thus their settings when creating justified docs go beyond creating “rivers” to creating doubt. The problem comes up when I am reviewing a doc and I see odd spacing; my first inclination is to think that there is a word missing, then I slow down to search for what it might be. To those who think justified docs look professional – phooey! BTW, I still struggle with the 1 or 2 space issue after punctuation, and believe that the latter contributes to readability by creating (however unnatural) breaks between sentences. As usual, thanks for your insights….

  • mike

    I’ve found that some lawyers/clients seem to like justification for the following reasons:
    1) It looks professional;
    2) It looks like it ought to be less negotiable; and
    3) It reduces readability.

    I think that the last two reasons are amusing and counter intuitive. Though, it makes some sense. If you justify the text, and scan it in as a pdf (so that the contract is a big image rather than text), it raises the costs of negotiating on the other side.

    There are lots of those silly tricks out there too. One big company purposefully inserts actual tabs on each line of a paragraph that typically would be indented. That way if you make any changes, it become god awful ugly. That is, change one work and the tabs are all out of whack.

  • Martin

    Some lawyers told me that they prefer justified text as it makes it impossible for a party to erase a word at the end of a line.

  • Ken Adams

    Martin: The lawyers you spoke with have lost their ability to balance risk against the cost of measures taken to combat that risk. The risk that someone would seek to perpetrate fraud by erasing from a contract a word or two at the end of a line is, for a number of reasons, entirely remote. It would be ridiculous to seek to eliminate that risk by inflicting justified text on every reader of every contract they draft. Ken

  • j-lon

    Couldn’t agree more with you on this stuff. Once you see the difference, how can you go back?

    A buddy of mine who is an industrial designer told me about the justification thing years ago, back when I was using Wordstar on Sanyo PC clone with two 5.25 floppy drives.

    At the time, justified text was a novelty, and in my youth and inexperience I thought that the 12 pt courier of the daisywheel printer looked pretty good that way (maybe even professional).

    But in retrospect it looks horrible, it is hard to read, and at least to me it actually says the exact opposite of “professional.” It says “person who doesn’t care enough about their craft to understand the tools they use every day, their limitations, and the skill it takes to do it the right way or not do it at all.”

    I’m not a professional designer. I don’t know about leading, etc. So for most things, I just try to stick to ragged right with one space after the punctuation, Serif fonts for the body, Sans Serif fonts for the headings (if any), and leave it at that.

    Seems to work pretty well. Along with some of your formatting suggestions, it yields a pretty streamlined document. It may look a little plain on first blush, but it it’s actually nice to read and work with.

    That said, it sure can be a tough sell to people sometimes.

    Actually, a lot of stuff in your book is that way. Much of it makes sense to me, and I agree with it. But I also spent a number of years teaching legal writing, so I kind of already had an interest in these sorts of issues.

    A lot of other folks don’t, and it’s a struggle to get them to excise all the unnecessary shalls out of the contract, etc.

    Any thoughts on how you approach that issue in real life? Obviously, it’s relatively easy to put that stuff into practice when creating the first draft, but it’s harder in the other direction, especially if your client doesn’t have a bottomless pit of money to spend.

  • Ken Adams

    j-lon: Soon I’ll do a blog post that addresses the question in your final paragraph. Ken

  • Paige

    Nice column. I can offer one more reason some lawyers use justified text: it’s an easy way to shorten a document that is creeping over the page limit for an appellate brief. Yes, I agree that good editing is a much better approach—and it will be the only approach as soon as more courts start imposing a word-count limit rather than a page limit.

    I stopped using two spaces after the ends of sentences after reading a nifty little book called The PC is Not a Typewriter.

  • Kathleen

    I also do not like justified right text in contracts because it interferes with readability, whatever the reason. I still use 2 spaces after sentences, mostly due to muscle memory. Try as I might, my thumb whacks that space bar twice. I’m wondering, though, why does your listing of comments have justified right text?!!!!

  • Ken Adams

    Kathleen: Excuse me while I wipe the egg off my face: I didn’t notice that the comments have justified margins! I’ll try to fix that. Ken

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  • http://www.AppealinginNevada.com Appealing in Nevada

    I am thrilled to find a resource to back up my own dislike of full justification in briefs. I’ve always known it throws off the letter spacing, but thought I was alone in my distaste for the way it looks.

    I confess that my habit is to use two spaces; I’ll plead muscle memory as well.

  • Claude

    I agree for the most part with your article, but cannot understand how anyone can claim that justified text saves space, or allows cramming more text into the same space.
    That’s just wrong, when writing with current text editors. Perhaps in typeset publications, where sub-character spacing is used, this may be true, but I don’t know of one text editor that uses sub-character spacing. Do you?
    All justification is achieve by leaving extra character spaces between words so the end of the last word will align with the right margin. Operative words: ‘extra space’, not extra text.
    The issue of hyphenation is NOT a feature of justification, just an additional setting, which can also apply to ragged-right margin (or left-aligned) text.

  • Ken Adams

    Claude: I was happy to pass on Ellen Lupton’s suggestion that when done properly, justified text allows you to fit more words on a page. But I’m certainly not qualified to offer any opinions on that score. And more importantly, it’s irrelevant for purposes of anyone who does their typesetting using standard word-processing software. Ken

  • http://www.loraxis.com/ddwoske Albin

    Donald Knuth took about ten years of studying typography and writing the TeX system to overcome many of the problems you mention with justified text.

    His justification algorithms produce much higher quality documents than what Word can produce. Output of justified text is simply beautiful.

    TeX also supports proper kerning, ligatures, small caps and robust mathematical notation.

    See here for some examples and more discussion : http://nitens.org/taraborelli/latex

    Also a showcase of documents :

    Just because some software can’t produce readable justifiable text does not mean the concept should be abandoned. Just use good typesetting software. (La)TeX is still the best solution and has a variety of packages for formatting articles, thesis, newsletters, etc.

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  • http://www.DatAsia.us Kent Davis

    Although comments on this column have died off it’s still #1 in Google [typesetting justified vs ragged] so I add mine here.

    I’m an independent publisher interested in maximizing readability of our books, presently focusing on Southeast Asian history. We want our books to be more accessible to ESL {English as a Second Language} readers. Also, quite frankly, as I get older and my eyes get worse I have less patience for books and magazines that cram huge amounts of dense text on pages in 10pt (and much smaller) fonts. Can you hear me Wired magazine?

    Of course Wired has been unique over the years, constantly sacrificing readability for “innovative graphic style.” Pretty? Yes. But I tell ya, that 7pt white text on a silver background isn’t the greatest for communication. (-;

    We’re typesetting our books with larger point sizes (11-12pt), larger formats (7″ x 10″), extra page spacing and increased leading (as Microsoft introduced in their 2007 font styles like Calibri).

    You can get a sense of our style from the Table of Contents and Bibliography/Index samples here: http://www.EarthInFlower.com

    But books in ragged right? Haven’t seen any but I’m considering it because I noticed something the other day. Time Magazine is printed ragged right. Probably have been for years but I could have sworn that would be narrow columns fully justified (like most magazines).

    Websites? Ragged right. Time, Newsweek, Readers Digest, US News, etc. I suspect their print versions are too but don’t have copies on hand to check.

    I imagine all these text outlets are doing this for readability. But PR consultant Kim Harrison cites a study that says ragged right *decreases* comprehension http://www.cuttingedgepr.com/articles/coreprskills_ragged_typesetting.asp

    She also says justification “is universally used in books, magazines and newspapers.” And that’s simply not the case.

    So I’ll continue to ponder this. Anyone seen any ragged right books lately?

  • http://robblogva.blogspot.com robb

    Thanks for posting this and encouraging the discussion. I teach ESL international lawyers, and the above discussion provides good pros and cons for the justified/aligned debate that I can now share with them.

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  • Helen Hall

    In both my teaching and post grad studies in literacy – plus later training in instructional design – we learned that fully justified (straight right edge) text not only takes up more space but is much more difficult for Western (left to right) readers to process. There has been loads of research done on this.

    People seem to like fully justified text because it looks tidy and they feel it makes their work look professional. You have to ask yourself though whether you want to produce something that looks tidy, or something that people can and will read.

    The more they read, the shorter their scan, because the eye becomes tired. People will scan shorter and shorter spans as they move down the page. Variety also helps prevent the eye becoming tired.

    Since most newspaper paragraphs consist of only one or two sentences in narrow columns, they are not difficult to read when fully justified. I have seen books with ragged righthand margins. In one case, it effectively formed part of the story. The part with the jagged margin was the reality and the fully justified text was the edited version of what happened.

    Many websites make the mistake of designing around marketing principles when they should be looking at educational principles (ease of use) – especially for things like FAQs…

  • Ash

    Hi All

    I don’t work in the legal profession but stumbled across this fascinating discussion and felt compelled to add my two cents worth.

    I have never understood why people use ragged right – yes you read that correctly. I absolutely can’t STAND it in any format and think it should be abolished off the face of the earth! Ok maybe not, but you can see how much I dislike it. It is so messy and instantly looks untidy not to mention strange – one side perfectly aligned and the other a complete mish mash…how is that ‘professional?’

    I totally agree that justified text which isn’t done correctly looks dreadful and causes issues with readability but that is a problem with the person doing it like that – NOT the concept of justification, which if done correctly looks beautiful. Most comments here seem not to be able to distinguish the difference.


  • Ken Adams

    Ash: When it comes to typography, people—you included—like what they like. So for purposes of establishing what’s easiest to read, personal predilections—yours, mine—are largely irrelevant. What matters is what the bulk of typographers say. And they recommend ragged-right text.

    You refer to using justified text “correctly.” I agree with you if by that use mean using typesetting software. But there’s nothing the user can do to fix the spacing shortcomings of word-processing software.


  • http://www.aber.ac.uk Tim Williams

    Justified text was invented so that newspapers could make more profit. It does allow more words on a page, particularly with hyphenation.

    Ragged-right text is easier to read because each line is a different length from its close companions therefore the eye finds it easier to “fly-back” to the beginning of the next line.

    If you want to slow your reader down (newspapers collect data on length of time spent reading) and make a page look nicer as a design entity then carry on using justified text. By the way, anyone who uses Word as a page design tool is misguided. Word is a word processor. Use a professional layout system such as Adobe Indesign (the best) or Quark XPress.

  • Mario

    Life is too short to lose sleep about this. Someone in my organization spends more time “unjustifying” text and lecturing to numerous PhD staff about their fonts used than adding real value to his supposed job… Makes you think!

  • Ken Adams

    Mario: The problem isn’t so much your officious colleague as the fact that your organization doesn’t have a mandatory house style. Ken

  • Joe Denney

    Some background from a former word-processor: In non-proportional fonts such as Courier, each letter is exactly the same width (i.e., the letter “m” takes up as much space on the page as the letter “i”), which is why using justified right margins with a non-proportional font is a complete disaster. The only place a word-processing program can add extra space to keep the right margin justified is between words, which is why you often see lines of text with unsightly gaps between words.

    Proportional fonts were developed to remedy this problem. In proportional fonts such as Times New Roman, characters are not the same width but are each assigned their own point value. The idea was that the word processing program would be able to fit more characters onto a line (for example, 50 Times New Roman characters vs. 40 Courier characters), thus eliminating the large gaps between words. Spaces in proportional font do not have a fixed value. Instead, the program is able to increase or decrease their point value depending on how many characters it is trying to fit into a line (which explains why it is almost impossible to get tabbed columns to line up using proportional fonts.)

    Unfortunately proportional fonts were not a perfect solution. The shorter the line, the less room the program has to work with, which is why you often see large spaces between words in the final line of a right-justified paragraph. Even throughout the rest of the paragraph, the spaces between words are not consistent, as the program is constantly adjusting the spaces between words in order to maintain that justified right margin. This, I think, is what makes it difficult to read text that is right-justified. The eye is constantly having to adjust from line to line as the spacing is different on every line. Even if we do not consciously notice the constantly changing spacing, it still takes more effort to read (much as a serifed font is harder to read than a sans-serif font).

  • Amy

    I agree with Ash’s commments above. Ragged-right does not look appealing and I have found eye specialists who believe the opposite of these typographers who claim that ragged-right is easier to read. These eye doctors note that ragged-right forces your eye to find a new edge for every line. With full justification you don’t have this strain.

    Word processing software does have limitations, but sometimes it is just a matter of knowing the software. For example, most documents can be beautifully prepared with full justification in WordPerfect. In Microsoft Word, the text often looks too spaced out in full justification. To fix this in Word 2007 go to the Office Button and click on Word Options at the botton. Then click Advanced. Scroll down to the bottom and click Layout Options. This will open a large menu of options. Check the box “Do full justification the way WordPerfect 6.x for Windows does.” You will need to apply this to every document that you fully justify. Or you can create a master document or template that you use with this box checked and then just “Save As” for each new document.

    Full justification saves space and paper. It is eco-friendly!

    • Qorse

      Thanks for the tip! The WordPerfect style looks much nicer and more consistent than Word’s default algorithm.

  • Phil Lewis

    Put in this in the category “too much time on our hands”, but I find this quite interesting. When proportional fonts became widely avaliable, I justified everything. No more (I still use it some, however).

    There is a better explanation for the readability of ragged margin than given above (unless I missed it): uniformity is the enemy of readibility. Raggedness helps the eye maintain its place (i.e., current line) in the document, justification provides no help at all.

    I am sure of this because narrower columns improve the legibility of justified text. And it easier to stay on line with narrower columns (the main reason they are used in the first place). However, narrower columns actually produce higher variability in horizontal spacing with justified text (if you do the math, you can see why this is so), so if horizontal spacing is causing the readibility problem, then narrow columns should be even worse with justification.

    Greater uniformity is the reason why all caps and san serif fonts are harder to read in body text compared to lower case and/or serifed fonts.

    Further, I am surprised that it is taken above as univeral fact above that justification produces greater text density. That is only true when hyphenation is used with justification and not used with ragged. I.e., it’s not due directly to the justification, it’s due to the hyphenation.

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  • http://charles-herrion.blogspot.com Charles Herrion

    Hi, Ken. I have a question. Should I justify the manuscript I’m writing? I only ask because I’m wondering if justification will make any difference when it comes to typesetting for print publishing. By the way, I had instinctively eliminated double-spacing after punctuation years ago, when I first began typing on a computer. I only recently resumed the practice, thinking it more professional. Thanks to your tip, I’ll happily return to my instinctive behavior.

  • warstetson

    People who want everything right justified are control freaks. They're the same type of people who can't mind their own business about anything. They're the type of person who would walk up to a stranger and tell them they're not allowed to smoke somewhere. They are clearly more concerned with how 'neat' the words are then with what the words say, which is why you will never see poetry justified. You know the NAZI's tried to justify everything too… Justification should only be used on periodicals to jam in words and emphasize their temporary cheap nature. Books, novels, poetry, and culinary works, things that are meant to last, should only emphasize their uniqueness and worthiness to one day possibly be considered as classics and therefore should never justify and only use ragged-right.

  • http://www.apatactical.com Chris Mar

    I hate to be difficult, but it seems that full justification as possible through meticulous adjusting and professional typesetting is tasteful and easily readable, but because Word is imperfect, why does full justification indicate unsophisticated or unscrupulous behavior. Many programs format text resulting in files which cannot be copied to another application, but this appropriate measure to protect proprietary technology. As well, any legal document is there to be negotiated and if the content needs revision, it will either be initialed or redone in order that a master copy has terms and context which represents what is to be agreed upon in its entirety.

    While removing unsightly spaced out text is possible, is there a fix or option that will allow Word or Open Office to not leave any spread-out gaps on the last line of every paragraph?

    Any assistance is appreciated.

    Chris Mar

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