Sunday 24 June 2007

On undesirable alignments

A correspondent writes to enquire about the typographical phenomenon in which pieces of identical text - single words or phrases - appear exactly above each other in a column of print. She gives an example from a BBC website of 22 June - a remark by Gordon Brown: 'It is a good thing he is out, it is a good thing Iraq is a democracy, it is a good thing people are able to vote' - in which the first and third examples of 'It is a good thing' are exactly aligned. She comments: 'To an experienced reader these occurrences shout out like a bad spelling' and she asks 'Has this phenomenon ever been questioned, or analysed? Are there any logical or mathematical reasons or is really down to randomness?'

This is a consequence of repetitive content in a narrow measure. I notice it regularly when editing my general encyclopedias, which have a two-column setting and quite a bit of repeated text. An example would be a family of artists. If each person has to be expounded using the same house-style, as is typical with encyclopedia entries, the likelihood of alignment is strong. It is difficult to reproduce the effect in a blog, but the following is an approximation:

[The leading mambers of the]
family were John Smith (1800-1880), born in Dundee, Scotland, and
his two sons Allan Smith (1830-1910), born in Plymouth, Devon, and
the prolific James Smith (1835-1891), born in Plymouth, Devon.

In a first typesetting, alignments of this kind can occur every few pages, and because they are so intrusive the typesetter usually takes pains to avoid them. I pick up any that haven't been noticed, and make minor changes to get rid of them, such as taking back or taking over a word from one line to another, or hyphenating, or making a stylistic change in the text. For example:

[The leading mambers of the]
family were John Smith (1800-1880), born in Dundee, Scotland, and
his sons Allan Smith (1830-1910) and the prolific James Smith (1835-
1891), both born in Plymouth, Devon, UK.

Alignments of this kind are generally a consequence of narrow settings, such as newspaper or website columns. They are much less likely to occur in a full measure line on a reasonably wide page. And if they do appear, it is a consequence of poor typographical editing - or no such editing at all, in the case of many websites.

Just occasionally, in my experience, it proves impossible to get rid of the alignment, and one ends up having to live with it. One can do very little with a quotation, for example, as in the Gordon Brown instance. Playing about with the inter-word spacing is possible on a printed page (though not usually with much effect). This isn't an option on web pages.


M.N. said...

Hello there,

This kind of problem is called a knothole, or a block of stacked characters. Good editing training teaches that you mark a knothole during the proofreading process and indicate that it should be broken up, if possible.

DC said...

Great name, isn't it!