Get Rid of First-Line Indents in Paragraphs Without Enumeration?

I’ve been reading Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers. It has caused me to revisit some issues.

Here’s one: In samples in MSCD, the introductory clause, the recitals, the lead-in, the concluding clause, and autonomous definitions all use first-line indenting. I also use space between those paragraphs. Here’s what Typography for Lawyers has to say:

A first-line indent is the most common way to signal the start of a new paragraph. The other common way is with space between paragraphs.

First-line indents and space between paragraphs have the same relationship as belts and suspenders. You only need one to get the job done. Using both is a mistake. If you use a first-line indent on a paragraph don’t use space between. And vice versa.

That suggests that I should get rid of those first-line indents. But an argument for keeping them is that all other paragraphs, namely those with enumeration, need first-line indenting—they’d look very odd without it. so I’m inclined to keep first-line indenting for unenumerated paragraphs, just for the sake of consistency.

What say you?


About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

11 thoughts on “Get Rid of First-Line Indents in Paragraphs Without Enumeration?”

  1. I also think that intro paragraphs should be indented. While spacing also sets off paragraphs, I think it’s harder to read without the indent. Like you, I also indent all numbered paragraphs (although my headings are flush left).

  2. I’ve always been strongly partial to first line indentation without spacing between paragraphs. This serves two functions: first, removing the spacing between paragraphs makes the document page count smaller (sometimes significantly so) which pleases certain types of clients for reasons I’ve never undearstood but have learned not to fight. Second, first line indentation allows you to visually indicate the outline of the document by increasing the amount of indentation (i.e., one tab indentation for sections, two tabs for subsections, etc.) this makes it easier to scan the document and follow the flow of the sections, but indenting only the first line (rather than the entire subsection, as currently recommended by MSCD) shortens the page count considerably.

    • Greg: The one option that I don’t think is feasible is removing the spacing between paragraphs. In regular prose that’s fine, but it would make life harder for purposes of reading a contract, given all the jumping from provision to provision that’s usually involved.

      MSCD recommends first-line indents for sections and subsections, hanging indents for tabulated enumerated clauses.


  3. Ken:
    I disagree with your approach of indenting entirely. I prefer all paragraphs to be flush left. I rarely have more than one paragraph in a single numbered part. (It is usually a cue for me that I’ve jammed too much into that part.) The upshot is that I rarely have a paragraph without an associated number (and title, unless it is a list of enumerated clauses). When I do, white space between the paragraphs is sufficient.
    I also disagree with putting the title for a part on the same line as the part itself. When you look at specifications for other constructed document types, such as HTML, XHTML, and the like, titles are separate from the text that they introduce. There are good reasons behind that, in that titles have a diferent semantic content than text does. Generally, I put the title of a part on a separately line before the part it introduces. The fact that the title rarely takes the entire column width means that there is a little extra white space that acts as a cue.
    For enumerated clauses, I go with a hanging indent (and no titles, obviously).

  4. I generally indent the first line because there are other cases where you might see a space between blocks of text, but where a new paragraph doesn’t start. For example, lists, block-quotes, etc…. But, you only see first-line indents at the beginning of a paragraph.

  5. Ken,

    I agree with you. I prefer to indent non-enumerated paragraphs (and, I prefer making the section title part of the paragraph).

    In brief writing, left justification of a paragraph following a block quote signals that the paragraph is part of the preceding paragraph. For example, if I insert a block quote here:


    See Smith v. Jones, 123 U.S. 456 (2012). And then I continue the analysis in the same paragraph I am signaling to the reader that the analysis is a continuation of the preceding paragraph.

    If, however, I insert a block quote here:


    And I then proceed with an indented paragraph I am signaling to the reader that this paragraph begins a new thought, for example.

    In contracts, a “new thought” should probably be included in an enumerated paragraph but that’s not always the case. Consider, for example, a definitions section that doesn’t enumerate the individual definitions:

    1. Definitions. The following terms have the following definitions in this agreement:

    Defined Term” with definition.
    Defined Term” with definition.
    Defined Term” with definition.
    Defined Term” with definition.

    In my opinion, the above looks more appealing to the eye than the following:

    1. Definitions. The following terms have the following definitions in this agreement:”Defined Term” with definition.”Defined Term” with definition.
    Defined Term” with definition.
    Defined Term” with definition.

    I’m hoping the HTML embedded in this comment works. :-)


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