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Run Ragged

You care about typography, right? Do you care about words and how they look, read, and are understood? If you pick up a book or magazine, you notice the moment something is out of place: an orphan, rivers within paragraphs of justified prose, or caps masquerading as small caps. So why, I ask you, is your stance any different on the web?

We’re told time and time again that as a person who makes websites we have to get comfortable with our lack of control. On the web, this is a feature, not a bug. But that doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards, or not strive for the same amount of typographic craft of our print-based cousins. We shouldn’t leave good typesetting at the door because we can’t control the line length.

When I typeset books, I’d spend hours manipulating the text to create a pleasurable flow from line to line. A key aspect of this is manicuring the right rag — the vertical line of words on ranged-left text. Maximising the space available, but ensuring there are no line breaks or orphaned words that disrupt the flow of reading. Setting a right rag relies on a bunch of guidelines — or as I was first taught to call them, violations!

Violation 1. Never break a line immediately following a preposition

Prepositions are important, frequently used words in English. They link nouns, pronouns and other words together in a sentence. And links should not be broken if you can help it. Ending a line on a preposition breaks the join from one word to another and forces the reader to work harder joining two words over two lines.

For example:

The container is for the butter

The preposition here is for and shows the relationship between the butter and the container. If this were typeset on a line and the line break was after the word for, then the reader would have to carry that through to the next line. The sentence would not flow.

There are lots of prepositions in English – about 150 – but only 70 or so in use.

Violation 2. Never break a line immediately following a dash

A dash — either an em-dash or en-dash — can be used as a pause in the reading, or as used here, a point at which you introduce something that is not within the flow of the sentence. Like an aside. Ending with a pause on the end of the line would have the same effect as ending on a preposition. It disrupts the flow of reading.

Violation 3. No small words at the end of a line

Don’t end a line with small words. Most of these will actually be covered by violation №1. But there will be exceptions. My general rule of thumb here is not to leave words of two or three letters at the end of a line.

Violation 4. Hyphenation

In print, hyphens are used at the end of lines to join words broken over a line break. Mostly, this is used in justified body text, and no doubt you will be used to seeing it in newspapers or novels. A good rule of thumb is to not allow more than two consecutive lines to end with a hyphen.

On the web, of course, we can use the CSS hyphens property. It’s reasonably supported with the exception of Chrome. Of course, it works best when combined with justified text to retain the neat right margin.

Violation 5. Don’t break emphasised phrases of three or fewer words

If you have a few words emphasised, for example:

He calls this problem definition escalation

…then try not to break the line among them. It’s important the reader reads through all the words as a group.

How do we do all of that on the web?

All of those guidelines are relatively easy to implement in print. But what about the web? Where content is poured into a template from a CMS? Well, there are things we can do. Meet your new friend, the non-breaking space, or as you may know them:  .

The guidelines above are all based on one decision for the typesetter: when should the line break?

We can simply run through a body of text and add the   based on these sets of questions:

  1. Are there any prepositions in the text? If so, add a   after them.
  2. Are there any dashes? If so, add a   after them.
  3. Are there any words of fewer than three characters that you haven’t already added spaces to? If so, add a   after them.
  4. Are there any emphasised groups of words either two or three words long? If so, add a   in between them.

For a short piece of text, this isn’t a big problem. But for longer bodies of text, this is a bit arduous. Also, as I said, lots of websites use a CMS and just dump the text into a template. What then? We can’t expect our content creators to manually manicure a right rag based on these guidelines. In this instance, we really need things to be automatic.

There isn’t any reason why we can’t just pass the question of when to break the line straight to the browser by way of a script which compares the text against a set of rules. In plain English, this script could be to scan the text for:

  1. Prepositions. If found, add   after them.
  2. Dashes. If found, add   after them.
  3. Words fewer than three characters long that aren’t prepositions. If found, add   after them.
  4. Emphasised phrases of up to three words in length. If found, add   between all of the words.

And there we have it.

A note on fluidity

An important consideration of this script is that it doesn’t scan the text to see what is at the end of a line. It just looks for prepositions, dashes, words fewer than three characters long, and emphasised words within paragraphs and applies the   accordingly regardless of where the thing lives. This is because in a fluid layout a word might appear in the beginning, middle or the end of a line depending on the width of the browser. And we want it to behave in the right way when it does find itself at the end.

See it in action!

My friend and colleague, Nathan Ford, has written a small JavaScript called Ragadjust that does all of this automatically. The script loops through a webpage, compares the text against the conditions, and then inserts   in the places that violate the conditions above.

You can get the script from GitHub and see it in action on my own website.

Some caveats

As my friend Jon Tan says, “There are no rules in typography, just good or bad decisions”, and typesetting the right rag is no different.

  • The guidelines for the violations above are useful for justified text, too. But we need to be careful here. Too stringent adherence to these violations could lead to ugly gaps in our words — called rivers — as the browser forces justification.
  • The violation regarding short words at the end of sentences is useful for longer line lengths, or measures, of text. When the measure gets shorter, maybe five or six words, then we need to be more forgiving as to what wraps to the next line and what doesn’t. In fact, you can see this happening on my site where I’ve not included a check on the size of the browser window (purposefully, for this demo, of course. Ahem).
  • This article is about applying these guidelines to English. Some of them will, no doubt, cross over to other languages quite well. But for those languages, like German for instance, where longer words tend to be in more frequent use, then some of the rules may result in a poor right rag.

Marginal gains

In 2007, I spoke with Richard Rutter at SXSW on web typography. In that talk, Richard and I made a point that good typographic design — on the web, in print; anywhere, in fact — relies on small, measurable improvements across an entire body of work. From heading hierarchy to your grid system, every little bit helps. In and of themselves, these little things don’t really mean that much. You may well have read this article, shrugged your shoulders and thought, “Huh. So what?” But these little things, when added up, make a difference. A difference between good typographic design and great typographic design.


Preposition whitelist


About the author

Mark Boulton is a graphic designer from near Cardiff in the UK. He used to work as a Senior Designer for the BBC, before he took leave of his senses and formed his own design consultancy, Mark Boulton Design. He studied typography, enjoys watching a good boxing match, and is partial to a really good cuppa.

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