Are you justified?

For legal documents, some lawyers prefer justified text (also called “fully justified” text) and others prefer left-aligned text (also called “left-justified” text). Fully justified text creates clean, vertical margins on the left and right, while left-aligned text creates a clean, vertical left margin and a ragged right margin.

Which is better?

The question sparks passionate debates. I think either is fine for legal documents, and in this post I describe the pros and cons of each and offer some recommendations.

Fully justified text produces neat, vertical margins that create the sense of a line on each side of the document. Justified text tends to look formal and serious, and that’s why professionally printed documents are often fully justified. For example, nearly all books use justified text. I just looked through 10 random books in my office: the text is fully justified in every one. I looked through 4 magazines I have on hand: 3 use full justification throughout.

But the full justification that looks neat and professional to some looks dry and uninviting to Matthew Butterick, author of Typography for Lawyers. He doesn’t fully justify the text in his legal documents (he’s primarily a trial lawyer). He says full justification “is not a signifier of professional typography.” Butterick at 136. And Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Legal Usage, says readability research shows that fully justified text is harder to read than left-aligned text. Garner at 291.

Left-aligned text produces a ragged right margin that looks less formal. Butterick says left-aligned text “relaxes the page.” Butterick at 136. Most websites (all 10 I checked) and informal correspondence (think email) are left aligned, and even some professional documents are left aligned. A magazine in my office uses left-aligned text, and the Austin-American Statesman left aligns its text—ragged right margins throughout. The text you’re reading now is left aligned.

But the left-aligned text that looks relaxed to some looks messy and unprofessional to others. After all, a ragged right margin is a vestige of the typewriter, which couldn’t produce fully justified text. Once upon a time, only professional printers could fully justify text. Now, with word processors, we can easily justify our text and give it the look of a professionally printed document. After all, why would you want your text to look like typewriter text?

Yet it’s the word processors (like Microsoft Word) that are the problem, says Butterick. The justification engine in a word processor is “rudimentary compared to a professional page-layout program.” Butterick at 136. So the justified text in the books we read might look great, but we all know justified text in a Word document often has unsightly gaps and spaces. The “rudimentary” justification engine is struggling to stretch and condense your text to fit the line length. It’s those gaps and spaces, by the way, that make fully justified text less readable.

So if you like justified text—the neat vertical margins—go ahead and justify. But if you’re not using a sophisticated publishing program, you should turn on hyphenation. In Word 2010, go to Page Layout > Hyphenation. This function breaks words at the right margin (as some of us used to do on a typewriter—remember?). Turning on hyphenation gives Word another tool to help the text fit the line length, and it reduces gaps and spaces. You should probably choose automatic hyphenation, not manual, and look through the other hyphenation options. And note that the function isn’t perfect: in a document I was preparing, Word once hyphenated newsletter as new-sletter. You have to proofread.

If you dislike justified text—the gaps and spaces—or if you don’t care, go ahead and use left-aligned text with a ragged right margin. According to Butterick and Garner, left-aligned text is appropriate for legal documents and will be more readable.

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