Readability of full vs. left-justified text in Word 2002?

Subject: Readability of full vs. left-justified text in Word 2002?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 4 Apr 2003 08:53:19 -0500

Robert Whitaker wonders: <<Does anyone have any data, articles, or opinions
on the readability of fully justified vs. left-justified
text in Word 2002?>>

No advice specific to Word, other than to note that it's nowhere near as
good at typesetting as PageMaker and Quark (can't speak to Frame... I don't
use it). But Word does a perfectly adequate job of printing readable type--a
very different thing from elegant typesetting. I have a variety of articles
various places in my archives that provide more general advice on the
science (rather than the art) of typography. A few thoughts based on the
research I've read:

- The differences in readability are statistically but not practically
significant. Other factors (line width, leading, font size, use of
hyphenation, etc.) are far more important in determining readability than

- Ragged-right text (the correct name for "left justified") has the
advantage of constant word spacing, which means that the reader's eyes can
always jump a constant distance between word; this facilitates the visual
"saccades" (jumps) of the focus of the eyes between words that occur during
reading. There will also be fewer rivers of white space formed inside
paragraphs (though ragged-right justification rarely eliminates rivers), but
if hyphenation is not used or is used carelessly, the ragged margin slightly
slows reading times because the eyes scan past the end of the line seeking
the end of the column.

- Fully-justified text has the advantage of providing a consistent right
margin that tells the reader's eyes when to return to the left margin (a
slight bonus for readability), but if you don't compensate for the stretched
word spacing that can arise, you get rivers of white space. Even if you do
eliminate the rivers, the uneven space between words makes the saccades
slightly more difficult.

<<I write long technical proposals for government contracts using MS Word

In which case you're best off following the guidelines to authors and
forgetting about which type justification is theoretically most readable. In
many cases, these guidelines remove the power of decision from your hands
and make the matter of readability academic.

<<The argument could be made, I suppose, that because proposals are
primarily marketing documents and are
intended to persuade and grab attention as well as inform, the polished look
of full justification is important.>>

A polished look is certainly important, but you can easily produce
professional text with either ragged-right or fully justified type.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite
of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."--Niels Bohr,
physicist (1885-1962)

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