Once More, With Feeling: Make Your Right Margins Ragged and Use One Space After Punctuation

In chapter 15 of MSCD and in this May 2007 post (which has attracted 32 comments) I explain why using ragged right margins makes word-processing documents easier to read. It’s a no-brainer—you may think that full justification looks “professional,” but typography experts are unanimously in favor of ragged right for word-processing documents. (Books and other works prepared using typesetting software are another matter.)

When you’re looking to shift entrenched positions, repetition can be helpful. So if you’re not convinced of the righteousness of ragged right, I suggest you check out this post on slaw.ca by Simon Fodden. (I learned about it from Ray Ward.)

Simon takes the opportunity to point out that it would be best to use one space, not two, after punctuation. So say all typography authorities I’ve consulted; I discuss that too in chapter 15 of MSCD and in this October 2006 blog post.

In all things relating to typography, bear in mind that people like what they’re used to. So if you’re inclined to fight tooth-and-nail for full justification and two spaces after punctuation, bear in mind that your own habits are less relevant than the views of typography professionals.

And bear in mind also that these habits are not hard to break. Once you make the change, you realize that the sky hasn’t fallen and that, in fact, life is a little simpler.

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.

25 thoughts on “Once More, With Feeling: Make Your Right Margins Ragged and Use One Space After Punctuation”

  1. I became convinced of the better readability of ragged right a number of years ago.

    I continue to use two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence, though; I claim that this is the proper style for contracts and other legal documents.

    Why? Because legal documents are frequently skimmed in search of a specific thought, point, etc. Putting two spaces at the end of a sentence is a courtesy to the reader, because it allows him/her to jump more readily from sentence to sentence.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen any evidence that one space is more readable than two; to me it seems just the opposite.

    The manual-on-style explanations I’ve seen seem to rely solely on historical arguments. They don’t seem to address the usability issue on this ‘point’ (pun intended).

    One of my early bosses used to insist adamantly that “We’ve always done it that way” was never in itself a good reason to keep doing it that way. That’s what the m-o-s argument seems to be.

  2. D.C.: So, those who advocate using one space are unthinkingly perpetuating the accepted practice? I don’t think so. Use of two spaces holds sway in the legal profession, and I made the switch only a few years ago.

    You claim that two spaces is the proper style? Then you must know better than The Chicago Manual of Style; James Felici, The Complete Manual of Typography (2003); and Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (3d ed. 2004), each of which I cite in MSCD. They represent solid authority on the issue.


  3. “Objection, your honor: Nonresponsive.”

    I just grabbed my handy copy of MSCD 2d and re-read sec. 15.50-15.55. The style-manual arguments you quote there boil down to, “because typesetters have always done it that way.”

    Here’s a hypothetical argument that could convince me if supported by evidence: 1) Most people read documents linearly from start to finish, no matter what kind of documents they are; 2) linear reading is easier with one space after an end-of-sentence period, vice two spaces; therefore 3) all documents should use one end-of-sentence period.

    Unfortunately, premise 1 seems shaky at best — as I noted in my previous comment, it seems to me that a) legal documents are very often skimmed, and b) skimming is easier with a bit of extra space to mark sentence boundaries; therefore c) legal documents ought to have two spaces at the end of sentences.

    Mind you, the specific question here isn’t one to spend a lot of time on. What caught my eye was what struck me as an over-reliance on the argument from authority.

  4. D.C.: I’d summarize that part of MSCD very differently: It says, in effect, that those knowledgeable about type recommend using one space, not two, because (1) there’s no evidence that using two spaces makes text easier to read, (2) it creates an unsightly hole in the line, (3) it’s inefficient, and (4) it results in documents with instances of three spaces and one space after punctuation and two spaces in the middle of a sentence. And to quote Felici (from the quotation in my blog post), “Proportionately spaced fonts … contain word spaces specifically designed to play the sentence-separating role perfectly.”

    How people read contracts has nothing to do with it. Sure, people don’t read contracts like they read a novel, but contracts aren’t the only kind of document that isn’t read from start to finish. Tinkering with the spacing after punctuation depending on how readers are likely to approach a document is an unlikely notion.

    But more to the point, because there’s no evidence that two spaces makes text more readable, it’s not a discussion one needs to have.


  5. The notion that two spaces improves readability (or skimmability) is urban myth. Here’s how we got to have two spaces after a period.

    In the mid- to late 19th c., typesetting had reached a low point in terms of quality. It was a commercial commodity, sold on the basis of cost per thousand ems (a measure of the quantity of type to be set). Recall that this was before the invention of the Linotype machine and before the invention of the typewriter. Type was set by means of a human being selecting metal types from a case and placing them, one at a time, into a composing stick.

    Gresham’s Law pushed commercial typesetters to find ways to shave cost. One way was to employ unskilled compositors; another was to pad spacing, thereby increasing the number of ems in a job (increasing the total cost despite the lower rate per thousand ems).

    As a result, at the time the typewriter was introduced, most commercial typesetting—that is, what people were accustomed to reading—was badly spaced, with wide gaps after every sentence. This was not true in the best books from New York publishers, but it was true in business documents and business books of all kinds.

    In selling the typewriter to businesses, manufacturers promoted the idea that they could produce typeset documents in-house. Of course, this is not how the typewriter came to be used, but the manufacturers wanted to convey the impression that a typewritten document could replace sending out to a typesetting shop.

    To encourage adoption by businesses, the manufacturers helped secretarial schools develop typing courses, and with the idea still in mind that typewriting should resemble typesetting as closely as possible, they recommended the “rule” of two spaces after a period.

    Secretarial school teachers being among the most hidebound people you will ever chance to meet, clung to that rule long after the revolution in commercial typography that came about in the early 20th c. And thus we all had typing teachers (products of the secretarial schools) who taught us to type two spaces after a period.

    It never had anything to do with readability.

  6. Ken, for what it’s worth, I took a highly scientific survey this morning: I asked Maretta (also a lawyer, you may recall) what she thought, while we were on the dogs’ two-mile morning walk. She’s a labor arbitrator, so she reads a lot of briefs. She said, in effect, sure two spaces make a document easier to skim than one space. Not that two people’s informed opinions are conclusive, but it’s enough evidence to pass the red-face test, I would think.

    In a slightly different context, I’m experimenting with using FOUR spaces after a colon to simulate the look of a table without having to muck around with Word tables. EXAMPLE:

    20.203 Moral rights licensed?    Yes.

    If yes: IF: As a matter of law, Provider retains any so-called ‘moral rights’ or similar rights in a Customer-owned innovation owned by the owner; THEN: Provider authorizes Customer and its designees, licensees, and assignees, without additional compensation or payments to Provider: (i) to make any desired changes to any part of that innovation; (ii) to combine any such part with other materials; and (iii) to withhold Provider’s identity in connection with any business- or other actions relating to that innovation.

    20.204 Provider retains certain rights?    Yes.

    If “yes,” then: (a) Provider retains the right to use, distribute, and further develop tools, components, and general knowledge and experience. (b) This retained right is perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, and royalty-free. (c) Provider may assign this retained right, without obligation to Customer, in connection with a sale or other disposition of the assets of its relevant business.

    I grant you that some will ascribe a lot of weight to the visual-aesthetics value of not having gaps in the printed text.

  7. D.C.: I don’t think HTML cooperated with your four-spaces experiment. But I understand what you were trying to demonstrate.

    As I’ve said previously, we like what we’re used to, so having people informally weigh in with their likes and dislikes isn’t very helpful. Although I’m able to draw my own conclusions on matters of typography, I ultimately defer to typography professionals if they speak with one voice on an issue.

    I don’t expect I’ll be changing my mind on this issue.


  8. In 1976, my father sent me on a touch typing course in Glasgow, Scotland. (For the record, I received a certificate that I could type at 22-25 words per minute.) We were taught to put two spaces after a full stop (period). You will see that I continue to do that. As far as I know it is the standard way that people are taught in the UK.

    Sometimes I only use one space, but that is because Mr Gates assumes that the second one is a mistake. It can cause formatting difficulties, if the second space is pushed by Word to the beginning of a line. Until I read this thread, I had thought that it was universal in the US to use only one space.

    I am less concerned about this than about the use of old-fashioned tab spacing in US contracts (in my experience, mostly East Coast; I have found that West Coast lawyers more often use indents rather than tabs, in a similar style to UK lawyers.) My theory is that the tab spacing is based on what comes naturally in manual typewriters, which I practised on when learning to type in the 1970s.

  9. When I first read Ken’s feelings on this issue, I really didn’t think it mattered much, as I didn’t feel very strongly about justification or periods. If anything, I thought full justification looked nicer. But I soon began to notice the typesetting issue, and then I took a speed reading class, and full justification definitely slows you down considerably when you use speed reading techniques. Using only one space after periods also makes it easier to speed read a contract.

  10. You’re right about the habit part. I was taught in word processing to use one space after a comma and two spaces after a full stop but when I finally got used to it, I found out that it’s not common at all to use two spaces after a full stop.

    As I type a lot, it took me less than a month I think to switch back to using just one space after a full stop.

  11. I’ve been at the frontlines of this debate between a U.S. attorney and a German attorney on a collaborative piece. The U.S. attorney wanted 2 spaces after a full stop and ragged right margins, and the German attorney wanted 1 space after a full stop and justified margins. After 1 hour of heated discussions, the horrid compromise was reached of 2 spaces but justified margins. While this was an entertaining spectacle to watch, it did challenge the fundamental typing standard I learned (2 spaces, ragged right).

    If there is a practical reason to use two spaces, such as Ken’s earlier example “The measure has been controversial in the U.S. States that have considered adopting it are few and far between.” then what is the benefit of adopting a scheme that allows ambiguity? I do not find any utility or persuasiveness in the arguments offered in favor of one space (they appear to be based more on an aesthetic quality instead of clarity).

    While some of you may be inclined to believe that Ken’s example is rare or far fetched, the more common issue is when there is a Ltd. followed by a defined term. If there is no 2 space standard, then there can be issues Re. 1 space standard.

  12. Jason: I cannot recall the last time I experienced a miscue of the sort you refer to, so I wouldn’t dream of using it as a rationale for perpetuating use of two spaces. And that’s even though I’m acutely attuned to the issue of ambiguity, having written more about it than pretty much anyone.

    And a writer can always fix such miscues. Regarding my “U.S. States” example, I would follow the lead of The Chicago Manual of Style and not use a capital S in “States.”


  13. There is a substantial body of educational research to support the fact that using 2 spaces after a period at the end of a sentence improves both readability and comprehension, as a result of the visual signal that the extra space provides. Further, given the fact that only one space is conventionally used after punctuation within a sentence, the extra space goes a long way toward eliminating possible confusion as to the delineation of a sentence. (I know, because I worked in the textbook publishing field for nearly 30 years before becoming a Contracts Administrator for a major engineering firm.)

  14. Mike: Citations, please! Any such research can’t be recent. There’s a boatload of musty typography research out there that’s utterly conclusory because it fails to account for the fact that people like what they’re used to. Ken

  15. I can’t believe the vehemence and energy around such an immaterial issue. As you can probably tell from my typing, I still use two spaces after a period. It’s what I was taught more than 30 years ago in typing class. I type fast; my thumb instinctively types two spaces. I don’t have to think about it. I can’t for the life of me see this whole discussion as important enough for me to “unlearn” 30 years of habit, and waste my time thinking about putting in one space instead of two. The problem you face in this discussion is that by the time a person is a lawyer he or she has been typing for years. Unless your target audience is middle school children, you would do better to focus on substance. A lot of what you write about is worth trying to incorporate; but this topic is drivel.

  16. Drivel? The response that first comes to mind is a vulgar one, but I’ll try to be more measured:

    This topic isn’t substantive, but so what? The world of English usage encompasses a broad range of issues, and I don’t find it a challenge to at least acknowledge them.

    As long as they’re not writing for me, I don’t care how many spaces someone uses. But this sort of change isn’t that hard: I accomplished it overnight.

    Furthermore, plenty of my readers are a lot younger than you (and I) and so are perhaps more willing to countenance change.

  17. Ken, when you gave your fabulous presentation to us in Harford, you mentioned your one-space-after-a-period crusade. I made the point that today’s smart gadgets (iPhone, BlackBerry) are programmed automatically to insert a period when the space bar is hit twice. This saves the enormous hassle of hunting down a period every time we end a sentence.

    I also happen to think that, mentally, we find our reading just a little bit easier when we’re programmed to know that a slightly larger space indicates the beginnning of a new sentence and therefore a new or additional thought. For that reason I don’t like full justication format: to justify, the computer tinkers with space between letters and words, expanding space as necessary to make the right edge even. This makes reading slightly more difficult.

    It is interesting that I am at this moment looking at the Sunday Styles section of last Sunday’s NY Times – the article running down the left hand side is ragged, the one running down the right hand side is fully justified. Odd.

  18. Scott: Hey, it’s not really a crusade, and it’s not mine! I’m just passing along the collective wisdom of the typography industry. (Now, represents and warrants, that’s a crusade!)

    Regarding the smartphone keyboard shortcut, all that indicates is that manufacturers glommed on to a pervasive keyboard habit. It carries no weight in terms of what the most efficient practice is for purposes of word processing.

    And there’s no evidence that use of two spaces makes text easier to read.


  19. Ken, often the coolest thing about your posts is the timeliness. Earlier this week I submitted a one-page amendment to my opposite number at BigCo. Calibri 11pt, 1″ margins, ragged right, one space after periods. A fairly vanilla exercise, to be sure. It came back with a couple of substantive edits, Times 12pt, the margins peeled back to 1/2″, fully justified (even the data in the 2 embedded tables!), and two spaces after both periods and… colons. I picked up the phone, informed counsel that his edits were fine but that we’d be reverting to standard formatting. I also gave him the link to this blog and a “where-to-buy reference for MSCD. One convert at a time!

  20. Fitz: Great! Tinkering with the other side’s typography, whether it’s clunky or a Calibri-fueled thing of beauty, requires chutzpah. Ken

  21. Ken, Personally I don’t give a rat’s ass what the typography professionals or style manuals say since I’m neither a typographist nor a stylist; just a lawyer who has to read documents while preparing them, proofreading them, amending them, copying bits and pieces from them to use in other documents and reviewing other lawyers’ documents. I have always put one space after punctuation within a sentence and two spaces at the end of a sentence and I always will.

    There is plenty evidence that documents are easier to read with two spaces at the ends of sentences; apart from the comments of others on this issue, there is my own thirty-one years experience reading, proof-reading, amending and reviewing documents on a daily basis.

    This is compparable to putting two lines between paragraphs.

    However, I do agree with you on ragged right margins.


  22. Like many debates in law, this one is purely academic. Personally, I use two spaces after a full stop (period) at the end of a sentence, one space after all other punctuation, and – shock and horror – justified margins. Can I justify (pun intended) my practice? No. Can I find fault with my practice? No. Can people read my documents? Yes. Can I read documents formatted in other ways? Yes.

    I note many references to the Chicago Manual of Style. Does it justify the styles it preaches? Perhaps, in deciding the whole “one space two space” issue, the editors just played rock-paper-scissors and the editor advocating one space got his way.

    Incidentally, here in South Africa, the practice is justified margins and I am yet to come across anyone who becomes bothered by the odd word being stretched out a bit. Not only that, the first lines of our paragraphs are not indented.

  23. Adam: Although I wouldn’t go to the barricades over either of these issues, the debate isn’t a sterile one. Ragged-right text is easier to read; using one space after punctuation is more efficient, results in greater consistency, looks neater, and doesn’t affect readability. Those benefits aren’t dramatic, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. Ken


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