Some time back I wrote about typefaces and why lawyers might want to care about which face they put forward. Of course, the choice of typeface isn’t the only aspect of the print world (whether on paper or in pixels) of interest: how the text is laid out is an obviously important feature affecting readability, one element of which I want to touch on in this post.
That element is justification, by which I mean whether or not the text is made to line up on the right edge of the column in what is sometimes called “flush right.” There is something pleasing about perfectly squared text, and lawyers are not alone in appreciating the seriousness that justification can impart to a text. Printers used to work hard to make things fit right to get that effect; nowadays, however, typesetting programs can for the most part achieve the same results with a lot less human effort. But word processors are lousy at it, and that’s the source of a problem affecting readability.
Words and even individual letters come in different widths, and this makes it difficult to arrange things such that a line will break at an even and sensible spot. The simplest trick to employ to help this is to hyphenate words that insist on sticking out too far to the right; but even here, of course, there are problems because you can’t really hyphenate a word just anywhere and have it be easily readable. Spacing is then used to compensate for the stubborn shape of words and letters: kerning adjusts the spaces between letters to improve readability and can help with justification; but spacing between words is the main source of the fudging that gets us to a straight line on the right. (Modern typesetting programs will also be able to squeeze or fatten individual glyphs, or letters, by very small amounts to further aid things.)
Word processors, though, lack all but the most rudimentary versions of these adjustment tools, with the consequence that when you tell Word, for example, to justify the text, what you get is a column of text that is flush on the right thanks to crude spacing between words in a line. Some gaps are small but others are large enough to cause the eye to stumble in its way across the text, and readability is lost. At times, these too large blank spaces will line up more or less vertically on a page, creating a river of white, drawing the eye away from the flow of the text.
Browsers’ attempts to produce justification online are even worse, which is why you rarely see flush right in websites. The results are too unpredictable, where readability is concerned, in part because browsers don’t know how to hyphenate properly yet.
The bottom line — the right line, if you like — is that you should not produce documents for any important purpose that are justified by a word processor. If you want to imbue your text with the seriousness and professional look we’ve come to associate with flush right, then do so with a proper typesetting program, ideally at the hands of an expert. In almost all other cases, and certainly where word processing is used, ragged right is the way to go if you want a smoothly spaced text that maximizes readability.
Take a look at the two (unhyphenated) examples below for a graphic illustration of my point.
Note the large white spaces between the words in the third last line of the first paragraph of the justified example.