Lawyer Type (4): Ragged Is Right

In legal documents it’s the job of print to deliver the message smoothly and then get out of the way as fast as possible. Lots of things go into making this possible, as any book or magazine publisher will tell you, including the choice of typeface, point size, space between lines (leading) and colour of paper. Yet, when it comes to the preparation of legal documents the profession seems to be willfully ignorant about what makes for persuasive print, favouring remnants of the typewriter age combined with bad aspects of word processing technology.

I want to focus now on only one issue: the use of justified text — that is, text printed in such a way that the right margins of all lines are equal. (The alternative — where lines of text are more or less the same length — is known as “ragged right.”) Almost all books printed nowadays use justified text, and as a consequence we’ve been led to believe that the rectangular look is a hallmark of professionalism and so must be found in all our documents. There’d be nothing wrong with this if the tools we use to create our documents were as sophisticated as those used by book publishers. But we use word processors, which, though they offer us justified text, are incapable of the flexible spacing adjustments necessary to make the result readable.

Proper typesetting calculates the best way to achieve a fixed right margin, spreading out the needed spacing not simply between words but subtly between letters within words, so the end result is a line that the eye can traverse without falling into ditches. Word processors dig ditches, in part because they don’t adjust letter spacing. Some of the time — much of the time in some documents — we can read a word processor justified text without too much difficulty, just the slightly strenuous feel of striding across double spaces. But without warning the document can present you with a word every so often, in effect more gap than grit. The effect is almost comic — not a common desideratum in legal docs — and always an irritant to the mind, which is seeking sense.

Stop justifying text on word processors. (Or give your work product to printers who can use proper typesetting tools.) To continue justifying badly creates the impression of ineptness, rather than professionalism.

I’m directing this injunction at the courts as well as at lawyers. The Supreme Court continues to justify the text of its judgments, as do the courts of appeal in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. (These judgments are simply reproduced as received by CanLII.) It cannot be that there’s something illicit about ragged right margins in court decisions: the courts of appeal in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (all part of where the country is ragged right?) and British Columbia release them that way.

(When the margin problem is fixed we then need to stop the typewriter practice of putting two spaces after a period. The Alberta Court of Appeal, I’m pleased to see, uses one space after a period.)

Look at this small passage taken from a recent SCC case:

Now look at it in “ragged right”:

Nothing in the Supreme Court rules concerning factums requires that the text be justified. Nothing in the best practices of typography requires it. Readability, in fact, requires ragged right.

See also The Friday Fillip: Ampersand | Lawyer Type | Lawyer Type (2) | Lawyer Type (3): Of Squigglies, Pilcrows, and Gaspers


  1. Hear, hear!

    Right-justified text and two spaces after a period gives me conniption fits.

  2. YES. Thank you. There’s nothing more distracting when trying to follow the logic in a judgment than having to battle through triple spacing in words.

    Eventually I’m sure the justify tools in word processors will be smart enough to adjust kerning in a way that rivals most printers’ work, but until then, embrace the ragged right!

  3. Thank you, Simon. I have been making this point for years, with very little effect. Now, if we could just have a nice serif font for the text, I’d be happy.

  4. Well, I was taught just about 50 years ago to leave two spaces after a period, and it may take me the same amount of time to stop. But the old Underwood I taught myself to type on did not justify the right edge (or the time it took me to learn, for that matter.)

    Reading experts find (as I recall from when I used to teach legal writing, <50 years ago) that ragged right type is easier to read than justified too. I forget why – I think it was independent of the spacing issues that Simon raises.

  5. For what it’s worth, I find ragged right text harder to scan quickly than justified when I’m scanning down a page to read quickly. In addition, so long as the sentence doesn’t have too long a word, the proportional fonts seem to work quite well for me. I concede that longer words sometimes create a problem as do longer URLs. I have, on occasion, rewritten a sentence because I didn’t like the way the spacing looked in the fully justified form, but that’s extremely rare. I have a long and even longer article on my website accessible off my personal page. In one text and footnotes are fully justifed. In the other the footnotes are ragged right. That’s the URL issue.

  6. Oh dear, where to start.

    Okay, yes, word processors (notably MS Word) do a poor job of justification. The reason, though, is that hyphenation (breaking words at the end of the line) is turned off by default. And when it is turned on, the default parameters (unlimited consecutive hyphens, as well as the numeric settings) are far from ideal. So you’re correct that ragged right reads better in word processor text, but you’re not correct about the reason. Good typesetting does not require adjusting letterspacing except on rare occasion. Proper hyphenation control is usually adequate.

    There may be some requirement I’m not aware of (not being a lawyer) that you shouldn’t hyphenate legal documents. If that’s the case, then carry on with your ragged right.

    However, the ONLY properly designed readability study in print (Colin Wheildon, Type and Layout, demonstrates that properly justified text is actually more readable than ragged text, resulting in better retention and comprehension on the part of the reader.

    The larger problem with legal documents is that the line length is too long and the leading (line spacing) too tight to enable proper reading in the first place. While you chose to limit this post to a single issue, you can’t really do that and still understand the problem as it presents in the real world.

    That said, readers are divided into three groups:

    • Readers with certain disabilities process text differently from normal readers, requiring accommodations that actually impair readability for normal readers. For the purpose of THIS discussion, I’ll ignore that group.

    • People who are sensitive to the way type is presented on the page.

    • People who are not sensitive to the way type is presented on the page.

    For the latter group, this whole conversation is meaningless. They process text as a string of abstract symbols, much the way a paper tape reader does. Many are excellent speed readers, and they typically do well in terms of comprehension, even if they can’t recall particular phrases or sentences. This group is not hindered by good typography, but they’re not particularly hampered by poor typography, either, as they are not cognizant of the shapes on the page. They are just channeling the writer’s thoughts. I suspect most lawyers fall into this group in the end, even if they didn’t start out in it, because of the massive quantity of text they have to get through.

    For the former group, typography matters very much, even if they can’t articulate anything about their reading experience. This is the group typographers design for.

  7. Your comment interface seems not to permit URLs. I had included the link for Colin Wheildon, Type and Layout, but it vanished. Here it is in a form readers should be able to decipher:

  8. Thanks, Dick. I ought to have stressed hyphenation and left kerning alone: you’re right. And I don’t disagree that properly done justified type is easier to read; it’s the properly done part that’s the problem. Line width is an interesting issue in legal materials. Most make a line far too long, as you say. Some, principally in the US, will break text into narrower columns (though only in some judgments and texts), which makes it much easier to read quickly.

  9. I just stumbled on this blog or I would have commented sooner. In any event, if you’re using Microsoft Word and full justification, you should turn on the option to fully justify as done in WordPerfect 6.x for Windows in addition to turning on hyphenation (in Word 2010, this can be found under File, Options, Advanced, Compatibility, Layout Options). This makes a page much more readable. Word stretches out words by default when using full justification. The WordPerfect option, on the other hand, compresses the words so that they are more readable. So, generally, if the default Word options are used, full justification can be atrocious, but if you configure Word properly, full justification can be as readable as ragged right.