Typography and language: the paragraph

Created by: Pablo Cosgaya. Adapted “Principios de formación”, in Manual de diseño editorial, by Jorge de Buen Unna.

«The body of a piece must have an organization, and this has to be obvious for the reader from the very moment he gets in touch with the book». Jorge de Buen Unna, Manual de diseño editorial

Artículo en proceso de traducción

The first task an editorial designer has to undertake is reading the piece, to get to know its content, understand its structure and prefigure the parts in which it is organized. The four main parts of a book are: covers, beginnings, body of the work and endings. We have already discussed in a previous paper how each of these parts is composed, but we are going to stop here in the main body of the piece.

The designer must know the levels of importance that need to be visually solved throughout the main body (opening of chapters, titles, subtitles, main text.).

The main body of the piece is,
basically, an arranged succession of chapters. Each chapter in time consist of several articles (groups of paragraphs joined under the same title.) Thus we conclude that the paragraph is the structural part of the piece.


When texts were written one line after the other, as a continuum, the beginnings of new ideas or concepts were indicated by a paragraph mark or some other ornament, usually painted in red. In the Middle Ages the usage of beginning each paragraph in a separate line was adopted, but the practice of beginning each one of them with a paragraph mark was maintained.

The use of a paragraph mark at the beginning of the paragraph, as well as illuminations and binding, used to be made outside the copy room (and then, outside the printing office.) With time, it became customary to leave the paragraphs without illumination (without its initial paragraph mark), exactly as they came out of the printing office. This is how the common paragraph became what we know today.

Regular paragraph (justified)

It is composed by indenting the first line and composing lines of the same width leaving the last line shorter, left-aligned. This creates well defined text rectangles, but special attention should be paid to hyphenation at the end of each line to achieve a uniform typographic color.

Paragraphs do not need to be separated one from the other by a blank line, as indentation shows the beginning of a new paragraph. The size of common indentation is an em, i.e., the space it occupies is the same as the type size in which the text is composed.

Modern or German paragraph (justified)

Before the Second World War, many designers, lead by Jan Tschichold, began a movement known as New Typography, characterized by a total rejection to ornaments. This idea was reintroduced by the «Swiss school» (lead by Josef Müller Brockmann), by the middle of last century. This line of thought was based on the regular paragraph, but considered indentation as superfluous, arguing that the final short line was already enough to indicate that the paragraph had ended. With time, the idea was supplemented by adding a blank line between paragraphs, to make separation more evident; this is a variation of the modern paragraph known as separate paragraph.

When this type of solutions is applied to lengthy pieces of work they increase the number of pages, as compared to the regular paragraph composition. It also produces a higher frequency of widows and orphans. In case this type of paragraphs is adopted, it is not necessary for the first line to begin with indentation, because the blank line between paragraphs is already enough to differentiated them.

Broken, unjustified or one-side justification paragraph (flush left)

They are made up of lines aligned on the left-hand side with the right-hand side ragged. The distribution of space between letters and between words is normally produced and an even color is achieved, though the right end is not smooth. This type of composition hides the typographer’s ignorance, but it does cause some inconveniences: it is necessary to avoid the repetition of words or fragments at the beginning of each line, the existence of whimsical o appealing forms on the right end of the paragraph and the coincidence of two or more lines of the same length, to mention a few. To achieve a more elegant look with this type of paragraph, it is advisable to use hyphens at the end of each line.

Hanging paragraph

This type of paragraph is used to make up listings and dictionaries. It consists of indenting the whole paragraph, except for the first line (the exact opposite of the regular paragraph.) To achieve this effect in desktop publishing programs, an indentation value is indicated for the whole text and the same value, but negative, is indicated for the first line.

Other types of paragraph composition

We have described the most common types of paragraphs. However, other types have been used throughout history, which are convenient to know: epigraphic or pine shaped (centered in all its lines), shaped (variation of the previous one which adjusts the length of each line to achieve a specific shape), old-style (without a line break and with a paragraph mark at the beginning of each paragraph.)

Asymmetry and symmetry

Given the fact that in our language we read from left to right, typographic composition is by definition asymmetric. This implies that regardless of whether the paragraph is placed on an even or on an odd page, the reader will always read it in the same way.

It is a common mistake to set flush left paragraphs on even pages and set flush right paragraphs on odd ones. The main text should always be composed in the same way, regardless of the page where it is located. Once we understand this general principle, we should consider that other elements such as titles, headings and page numbers can be symmetrically arranged.

Paragraph attributes

Once we have decided on the characteristics of the paragraphs for the main text, it is advisable to configure this paragraph only once and to save those settings in the Style Palette of the desktop publishing program used.

Discretionary or soft hyphens

Commonly, adjusting paragraphs requires breaks which may vary throughout the treatment of the text. Very often there are hyphens which were left in a word which is part of a text which flowed. To avoid this, we may take advantage of a useful resource of the desktop Publishing programs: the discretionary or «soft» hyphen, which consists on the combination of the hyphen key [-] with another (in QXP-MacOS: Command + Hyphen, in QXP-Win: Ctrl + Hyphen), and as a result, when the text flows the hyphen disappears.

Discretionary or Soft Line Breaks

The same thing mentioned in the previous item happens with line breaks (in QXP-Mac: Shift + Enter, in QXP-Win: Shift + Enter.) This commands allow you to make a line break without modifying the paragraph attributes to which they belong.

Brief Glossary

Words and spaces joined together to make up words, lines, and columns. In the beginnings of printing, this was hand made, choosing the letters and spaces in the type case as quickly and accurately as possible, and passing them to a metal composing rule: the composer stick.

Element used to separate letters and words from each other. In the traditional printing, spaces are made of different sizes: narrow, mid, thick, half an em, em, em an a half, two, three and four ems.

Letter-spacing (horizontal spacing)
Amount of space between neighboring letters. It is enlarged or reduced to make the lines in a paragraph have the exact same length.

Operation which consists of applying tracking to text in a paragraph so that all lines may have the exact same length.

Orphan line
The first line of the paragraph when it appears at the end of a column.

Widow line
The last line of the paragraph when it appears at the beginning of a column. This line is unsightly and should be avoided by shortening the paragraph to which it belongs or going through the text. In the desktop publishing programs there is the possibility of configuring it to keep the first two or the last two lines of the paragraph together. Thus widows and orphans can be easily noticed, and may then be corrected.


  • DE BUEN UNNA, Jorge.  Manual de diseño editorial. 3.ª edición, corregida y aumentada. Trea Ediciones, España, 2009.
  • MARTÍNEZ DE SOUSA, José. Diccionario de edición, tipografía y artes gráficas. Trea, Gijón, 2001.

Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish

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