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?

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.