Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Typographical Rear Guard

Absence of controversy usually lets matters of typography elude Disputed Issues. Typography is an engineering discipline resting on centuries of experience and a firm scientific basis. Occasional controversies arise at the periphery, such as specific font choices, but core typographical matters are well settled, including: Should margins be justified or ragged right? and How many spaces should separate sentences? Yet, lawyers ignore the typographers’ answers:

  • Use a ragged-right margin for word-processed text.
  • Never use more than a single space between sentences.
        The predominance of justified margins in law is easy to understand. Ideally, justified margins make columns appear columnar, a look the ancients pursued by lining up both the left and right margins when copying manuscripts. The ancient pedigree of the columnar form testifies to its inherent pleasantness. Today, trade books are usually printed justified, and proponents of typographical modernization might themselves have introduced some confusion into the discussion by urging legal writers to emulate the publishers in using only a single space to separate sentences. Doing as the book publishers is good advice for sentence spacing and bad advice for text alignment because of the strengths and limitations of desktop products. Short of the costly solution of professionally printed briefs, the decision whether to use justification or ragged-right margins depends on nontechnical considerations: Is it more important to prepossess the client or persuade the judge? The time the lawyer's staff devotes to create an almost-readable document impresses some clients, but reading a word-processed document with justified margins is an annoying experience.

        Unexpectedly, the superiority of two spaces between words is upheld by some informed legal writers, who after being set straight, switched to one space between sentences and then decided two spaces were better after all. Sometimes the reverters complain about rare circumstances where a single space is misleading. More often, they conclude that, despite its origins in the obsolete typewriter’s shortcomings, the extra space aids comprehension: the right idea for the wrong reason. (See

        Young lawyers’ loyalty to the old two-space typewriter convention is puzzling. Two biases seem relevant: 1) the
        more-is-better evidentiary heuristic and 2) false assumptions about the mechanics of reading. The more-is-better heuristic, the disposition to think that supplying more evidence (such as an extra space) necessarily produces a higher level of certainty, accounts for the tendency of reverters to stress occasional typographic anomalies, while not considering their counterparts. Supporting this explanation is the practice in the 19th century of placing a super-space, larger than the two spaces recommended for typewriters, at the ends of sentences. Redundant evidence and the importance of processing speed make applying the more-is-better heuristic misleading.

        Craving stronger cues for sentence endings expresses a mistaken theory of the reading process—or fault in the process itself—which confuses the units for eye fixations with those involved in parsing meaning. While the sentence is the basic unit of meaning, eye fixations are blind to meaning, as reader can’t distinguish meaningful units until brain analyzes input. Using the extra-large space as the automatic boundary for eye fixations, a tendency promoted by extra spacing, slows reading. Efficient readers read
        through the period and space.

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