Why don't we indent paragraphs any more?
June 4, 2011 10:54 AM   Subscribe

When and why did we stop indenting paragraphs?
posted by TigerCrane to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
but... we do. in books, in essays, in articles.
do you mean on the internet?
posted by changeling at 10:56 AM on June 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Who's "we"? And where do you see this? I still see lots of indented paragraphs - online, and also in books and magazines. It's probably less common online, but it's still around.
posted by rtha at 10:57 AM on June 4, 2011

Might've been somewhere around the time that the Tab button started moving you to the next UI element.
posted by box at 11:01 AM on June 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

We stopped indenting paragraphs when there wasn't a good way to do it online. As online reading grew in popularity and became standard, the form followed to print materials. Once we could indent paragraphs online, it was no longer customary to do so in this format, so we mostly didn't.

I am old enough to remember learning to code my first HTML pages back in the dark ages and saying "What do you mean I can't indent?" and being outraged by this. I got over it and now I don't even indent in Word documents any more. Sorry.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:02 AM on June 4, 2011 [8 favorites]

Who and where are you asking about?
posted by John Cohen at 11:02 AM on June 4, 2011

I would say it doesn't happen on the internet because HTML collapses whitespace, which makes indenting more of a pain, especially in the pre-css era.
posted by that girl at 11:02 AM on June 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Indenting is easy on the internet with CSS. My paragraphs have never not been indented, by hook or by crook.

Also, two spaces after every period. runs away quickly
posted by Aquaman at 11:06 AM on June 4, 2011 [12 favorites]

As someone with a very shallow understanding of all things internet, indenting is a pain because the Tab key usually brings you to the next field rather than indenting the paragraph. Maybe this has carried over to print, but it's not something I've noticed.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:21 AM on June 4, 2011

You need to be a bit more specific in your question.

However, note that there have been various formats for business letters for quite a long time, including some that do not indent the paragraphs. I started writing business letters in the 1970's (on a correcting typewriter), and the block format, which does not have indented paragraphs, was an option even then. Personally, I am not crazy about how that looks, so I usually use modified block format for business letters. I tend to still use this, whether I am typing a business letter on the computer, printing it, and then mailing it, or whether the business letter goes as an email message.
posted by gudrun at 11:24 AM on June 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Indenting or not depends on the publishing form. See also the history of the Pilcrow. Eric Gill's classic On Typography, surprisingly, has pilcrows instead of line breaks or indentation for paragraphs.
posted by Nelson at 11:25 AM on June 4, 2011

I don't remember anyone indenting paragraphs on computer docs in the 90's.
posted by Not Supplied at 11:26 AM on June 4, 2011

I'm a book editor, and we absolutely indent paragraphs (except for the first paragraph of a chapter or section, which goes flush left, but that's just a style thing). In fact, one of the very first tasks I occasionally have to do with an author's manuscript is go through it and reformat the manuscript from block style paragraphs to indented paragraphs.
posted by scody at 11:31 AM on June 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I haven't seen a not-indented paragraph in a while, outside of situations like this online one where it's basically impossible.

Where are you seeing them?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:40 AM on June 4, 2011

What are "we" not indenting? It depends upon what I'm typing. And where. Indenting while typing a response such as this is still rather difficult. I indent sometimes, and sometimes I don't. It depends on what I think works better. I learned modified block for letter writing, and "traditional" (indented first line, no blank line between paragraphs) for essays and stories.

I do a lot of multi-column layout for newsletters, and I've found that "traditional" paragraphing is more difficult to read than block. When I'm doing single column layout, I use traditional.
posted by jlkr at 11:45 AM on June 4, 2011

Block paragraphs are preferred for screen reading because it makes paragraphs easier to scan.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:54 AM on June 4, 2011

When I come across a story online that has been indented rather than distinguishing paragraphs through double line breaks, I find it hard to read. A computer screen is wider than a piece of paper, which makes indentation harder to see, and can lead to the "wall of text" effect. Double line breaks are easier to follow.

I think it was a combination of factors. First, indentation was more difficult to do in the early days of HTML, but also, a computer screen is just not a piece of paper.

You can see the transition in a lot of early fanfiction that was written in plain text, which doesn't eat whitespace. Some authors used indentation, but some didn't, and over time--coincidentally as HTML became more prevalent, meaning not only did white space get gobbled up but you didn't format your text to be 80 characters wide or whatever, instead letting it be as wide as the screen--indentation gradually went away.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:19 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had always believed (wrongly, as it turns out) that if you typed paragraphs you didn't need an indent, because you can leave a blank line instead. It's harder to see gaps in handwriting, so a clear indent makes handwritten documents easier to read.

I have always typed block paragraphs for A4 docs (letters, essays, prose) unless the writing area was small enough to create ugly 'rivers', in which case I aligned left and indented new paragraphs (columns, poems, captions). My designated proof-reader took issue with the absence of indents (and justified text) and it seems the majority agrees with him.

Still, I just cannot indent paragraphs if there's already a blank line. Sorry.
posted by dumdidumdum at 1:22 PM on June 4, 2011

I don't know about all of them but I think for MLA style you're still supposed to indent paragraphs although I find it a bit old fashioned now.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 1:55 PM on June 4, 2011

     Your question implies that at one time "we" all indented.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:35 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think we did stop. About 30 years ago I took a secretarial course. One of the styles we learned was block, with no indents. So no indenting has been around a while. I prefer block since it looks cleaner and is easier to read. But indenting is still very common.
posted by fifilaru at 3:54 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd put the block formatted business letter as the top of the slippery slope, but my study-group-of-one says that the real nail in the coffin was when, after formatting a document on your computer, aligning everything to perfection using tabs, you would ship it electronically and have it come out as completely unbeautiful gobblety-gook at the other end because of inconsistencies in tab defaults from program to program. You got more reliable formatting in the 90s if you skipped the whole tab business.
posted by Ys at 6:53 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The questions and answers suggest a distinction needs to be made for net writing and print (paper) writing.
Note: On my blog, when I need to save space, I run paragraphs together but indicate where a paragraph would appear like this:

--The purpose of the line is et
--In other school, however, we find etc
--Thus we can conclude etc
posted by Postroad at 6:54 PM on June 4, 2011

The argument that indents vanished because they're harder to make in HTML seems flawed. Paragraphs in HTML are just text separated by <p> tags—when people were first writing browsers they had a choice how to render that, and chose block paragraphs rather than indented paragraphs, but technologically it would have been just as easy to go the other way. Now, with CSS you can style paragraphs whatever way you'd like.
posted by JiBB at 8:47 PM on June 4, 2011

Indenting a paragraph has an interesting history. Through the centuries, a paragraph was indicated by a succession of symbols, ending with the pilcrow ( ¶ ). The symbol occurred at the beginning of the first line of the new paragraph. Having attained such a singular importance, the pilcrow then did something remarkable: It committed typographical suicide, which is to say it fell out of use. The blank space where the pilcrow formerly stood became the indent we know today as the beginning of a new paragraph. And I learned all this just now on the web. Yay web!
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:58 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tangential, but standard braille transcription still uses indentation. Block style with spacing would use up too much precious paper (which only has 25 lines). Also, tradition.
posted by marble at 9:39 PM on June 4, 2011

When I learned to type (in the 90's) I was taught both indent and block style. Personally I liked block so that's what I went with from then on!
posted by sbutler at 1:30 PM on June 5, 2011

I have always been expected to use block style for business correspondence, but always used indents for handwritten correspondence and some typed personal correspondence.

/learned such conventions in the 80s
posted by desuetude at 4:51 PM on June 5, 2011

In fact, one of the very first tasks I occasionally have to do with an author's manuscript is go through it and reformat the manuscript from block style paragraphs to indented paragraphs.

No kidding, one of the (lesser) reasons I'm leaving book publishing for medicine is from having to do exactly that about umpty billion times. Yes, many people do still indent.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:15 PM on June 7, 2011

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