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[groff] Rivers, the ragged right, and BCPL roff (was: Spooky action at a

From: G. Branden Robinson
Subject: [groff] Rivers, the ragged right, and BCPL roff (was: Spooky action at a distance in line adjustment...sometimes)
Date: Wed, 27 Jun 2018 09:42:57 -0400
User-agent: NeoMutt/20170113 (1.7.2)

Hi, Doug!

At 2018-06-26T21:28:23-0400, Doug McIlroy wrote:
> Ancient history: when I wrote BCPL roff, I immediately noticed the
> page-level density gradient from thick on the left to thin on the
> right if padding spaces were inserted from the right. I next tried
> randomly distributing the padding. This was even worse because it
> led one to perceive false phrase boundaries at the wider spaces.
> The text became maddening to read. Only then did I try alternating
> left- and right-padding, which has stood the test of time.

My browser history revealed to me that I had seen the "River
(typography)" Wikipedia article before, but apparently it didn't cut a
deep enough channel into my long-term memory.

I was poking around on the Unix v7 man page archive the other day, and
discovered to my delight that BCPL roff's request list was documented
there.  Unfortunately, it was marked up in...BCPL roff embedded within a
man page, which hopelessly confused groff.  I've attached a version
which can be viewed with "man -l" (or just nroff -man) on a modern

> But all this is a frill. Justified text seemed like a nice idea
> at the time, because it distinguished computer-composed documents
> from old-fashioned typewritten documents. But it soon became old
> hat and people migrated back to ragged right margins, which may
> not look as neat from afar, but also seem to be easier to read
> both because of even spacing and because the variable margin 
> provides distinguishablility to help a reader track vertical
> position on the page.

In my own case, I haven't found that last point to be true; I find full
justification more attractive when I gaze at the page, but while reading
I swiftly forget to notice whether the text is set ragged right or not,
and in practice I forget which convention was used.

For example, I was going to try and rebut you on this point with
reference to Oxford University Press's "A Very Short Introduction"
series, which has been going for a couple of decades.  I remembered two
things about it: (1) early titles were printed with a sans-serif font,
but that swiftly gave way to serif fonts and stayed that way for many
years (I can't speak to any titles within the last few years) and (2)
they used to be set ragged right and are now set full.

So I went and checked my library.  I was right about (1) but not about
(2).  They're still ragged right after all these years.

I'm wondering how many decisions in typographical style are made in the
absence of any experimental data regarding readability, and I fear the
answer is "more than I'd care to know".


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Description: Text document

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