Ragged-right or justified alignment?

Which alignment on the printed page is better: Ragged-right or justified? It seems that ragged-right is preferable, at least in some circumstances.

Today, I’m re-posting a piece that I first published on April 23, 2009, on the now defunct Content Wrangler site and then moved it to this blog as legacy material that was buried in the dark links of history…

I’m revisiting that post for two reasons: To my surprise, this has been one of my most popular posts in terms of search queries, so apparently this is an interesting topic. And I’ve discovered an additional argument with a twist that was new to me…

But first, let’s rewind…

Last year, I wrote:

How do you argue for the preference of ragged-right over justified alignment in print? Searching the web, I soon came across pages which mentioned research, but it was harder to actually find it.

  • The National Center on Educational Outcomes put out the NCEO Technical Report 37 which summarizes several arguments and references on the topic in “Table 3. Characteristics of Legible Type”, see the entry on “Justification”. Among them are:
    • Margaret Gregory’s and E. C. Poulton’s article “Even versus Uneven Right-hand Margins and the Rate of Comprehension in Reading”, Ergonomics, Volume 13, Issue 4, July 1970, pages 427-434. From the abstract: “… made no difference for good readers, but for the poorer readers the justified style resulted in a significantly worse performance.”
    • Steven Muncer, et al’s article “Right is Wrong: an examination of the effect of right justification on reading”, British Journal of Educational Technology, Volume 17, Issue 1, January 1986, pages 5-10. From the abstract: “… with reading material presented in right-justified format and in ‘ragged’ uneven line format, subjects performed significantly worse on right-justified material.”
    • David R. Thompson’s paper “Reading Print Media: The Effects of Justification and Column Rule on Memory”, paper presented at the Southwest Symposium, Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communication (Corpus Christi, TX, October 6-7, 1991). From the abstract: “… best score for recall was recorded in the flush left/jagged right.”
  • The UK government agency RNIB’s “Clear print guidelines” on designing printed information that is accessible to people with sight problems: “… avoid justified text as the uneven word spacing can make reading more difficult.”
  • The SEC’s “Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents” (PDF), see p. 50: “… spacing between words fluctuates from line to line, causing the eye to stop and constantly readjust.”
  • … and a thoughtful blog post by Ken Adams with an argument by Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and author of “Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students”: “… subtle word-spacing and letter-spacing algorithms are needed to make justified text look ‘good’.”

Now I’ve found more arguments:

Karen Schriver’s book Dynamics in Document Design of 1997 is both comprehensive and excellent in explaining the motivation, the tools and the history of good document design. Be warned, however, that it deals almost exclusively with printed document design. Online design is the afterthought that takes up Appendix C, pages 506-517. (That detail right there tells you pretty much what kind of a book it is… 🙂 )

Schriver essentially argues that ragged-right vs. justified is the wrong question – imposed on us by software options, I want to add. According to Schriver, the real issue is word spacing.

Regular word spacing makes for faster reading and more accurate comprehension, in both ragged-right and justified text. Much of the software we use for writing gets word spacing in ragged-right alignment reasonably right without too much trouble. The problem with justified text is that it requires a sophisticated balance of letterspacing, word spacing and word hyphenation which much software apparently doesn’t get right automatically. Instead, it…

…creates a disturbing visual illusion known as “rivers” – paths running vertically through the text that connect the blank spaces between words on adjacent lines. (p. 270)

Here’s an illustration of rivers, from the Wikipedia article on Sentence spacing:

An example of the "river" effect in justified text

So, the bottom line is: If you have rivers in your text, consider ragged-right alignment to do your readers a favor – or invest extra time in spacing your lines nicely.

– If you know of any other arguments or sources that can help us tech writers with alignment and justification, please leave a comment!