Understanding line and paragraph spacing in Word

August 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm 3 comments

In Word, there are two types of spacing: line spacing and paragraph spacing. Both are attributes of paragraph formatting that can be configured via the Paragraph dialog,[1] but they work differently. Line spacing affects the distance between lines of text within a paragraph, and paragraph spacing affects the distance (i.e., the white space) between paragraphs.

Line Spacing

Line spacing options in Word include conventional single and double spacing, plus a few additional choices. Before exploring the other choices, it’s worth discussing single and double spacing, which are not — contrary to what you might think — entirely self-explanatory.

The Role of “Leading” in Single and Double Spacing

Many people probably assume that the “simple” line-spacing options — single and double spacing — merely reflect multiples of the point size of the font they are using. If that were so, single-spacing with any 12-point font would produce lines of text that are 12 points in height and double-spacing would produce lines of text that are 24 points in height. (As a reminder, there are 72 points to an inch; thus, 12 points is 1/6 of an inch and 24 points is 1/3 of an inch.)

However, that formulation leaves out one crucial factor. In order to improve readability, single and double spacing add a certain amount of vertical distance — in the form of white space — between lines of text, an aspect of typography known as “leading” (pronounced as if it were spelled “ledding”). The amount of leading varies depending on which font you are using (not all 12-point fonts are equal). Typically, single-spaced lines range from 110% to 135% of the font size. For example, let’s say you select Times New Roman, a font that is common in legal documents. If you set the font size at 12 points and apply single spacing, the true height of your lines of text will be roughly 115% to 120% of the point size, or 13.8 to 14.4 points.[2] The line height might be different with a different font, such as Arial, Courier New, or Helvetica, even if you set the font size at 12 points.

Similarly, double spacing usually runs 220% to 270% of the size of your chosen font. So, sticking with our example, using Times New Roman at 12 points and applying double spacing will result in lines that are spaced approximately 27.6 to 28.8 points apart.

This phenomenon — the vertical expansion caused by “leading” when you use single spacing or double spacing in Word — explains a number of confusing issues, including why it can be difficult to align text with the line numbers in pleading paper. (The Pleading Wizard, a utility used to generate pleading paper in versions of Word prior to Word 2007, sets an “Exact” point size for the numbered lines, such as 22.75 points, that is smaller than standard double spacing. Because double-spaced body text is “taller” than the line numbers, the text and the numbers quickly get out of sync.)

To get a feel for how much extra spacing leading adds, select a 12-point font and type a brief paragraph (make sure it’s at least two lines long). First, set the line spacing to single. Then change the line spacing to Exactly 12 points. Try the same experiment with the line spacing set to double and then to Exactly 24 points. You’ll notice a tremendous difference.

The moral of the story: If you don’t want Word to expand your text vertically, don’t use single or double spacing. Instead, use an “Exactly” setting, such as Exactly 12 points or Exactly 24 points. (In pleadings, you’ll need to choose a setting for the body text that matches the spacing of the numbered lines. For a longer discussion of this point, see my earlier post, “Aligning text with pleading line numbers”.)

The New Default Line Spacing

As if matters weren’t confusing enough, Microsoft changed the default line spacing to 1.15 lines in Word 2007 and Word 2010 and to 1.08 lines in Word 2013 and Word 2016.[3] The default setting in older versions is single spacing, which — notwithstanding the additional vertical space resulting from leading — is substantially more compact than the new setting.

It’s easy to change the default line spacing, however. Simply open the Paragraph dialog, set the spacing according to your preferences, then (1) in Word 2007, click the “Default” button, then click “Yes” and click “OK”; (2) in Word 2010, click the “Set As Default” button, click the “All documents based on the normal.dotm template” option, then click “OK” twice.

Additional Line Spacing Options

Besides single spacing and double spacing, Word offers four additional line spacing options: 1.5 lines, “Exactly,” “At Least,” and “Multiple.” The 1.5 line option is similar enough to single and double spacing that it doesn’t merit further discussion here.

As for the other options, “Exactly” enables you to choose a highly precise line spacing that remains fixed, whereas “At Least” gives you the option of specifying a minimum line spacing and letting Word adjust the height if necessary to accommodate graphics such as drop caps (or other characters) that wouldn’t otherwise fit. (This option presumably is used widely in desktop publishing but, for obvious reasons, isn’t suitable for pleadings or any similar type of document that is subject to strict formatting rules.)

The “Multiple” option is used for setting line spacing at an interval other than single, double, or 1.5. For example, if you wanted triple spacing, you would use the “Multiple” option and type “3” in the “At” box. (The new default line spacing of 1.15 involves the “Multiple” option.)

“Exactly” can be important when you are working on pleadings. As mentioned earlier, the process of generating pleading paper usually results in line numbering that does not use true double-spacing. For technical reasons, the line numbers on pleading paper often are spaced 22.75 points apart (or some similar figure). In order to get the text of the pleading to align properly with the line numbers, you have to make sure the line spacing of the text matches that of the line numbers (which you can determine by going into the document’s header, clicking somewhere within the line numbering, and then launching the Paragraph dialog and viewing the setting for the line spacing). If it doesn’t match, you’ll have to select the text and change the setting via the “Exactly” option.

Paragraph Spacing (“Before” and “After” Spacing)

By contrast with line spacing, paragraph spacing refers to the space between paragraphs. You can tell Word to insert extra space automatically before a paragraph, after a paragraph, or both. For example, if you want Word to insert one blank line between paragraphs, you can set the “Spacing After” to 12 points, the rough equivalent (as we now know) of a standard single-spaced line. Or you can set both the “Spacing Before” and the “Spacing After” to 6 points (about half a line).[4]

When using one or both of these options, test them first to see if they work in a given situation. Sometimes you can end up with too much (or not enough) space between paragraphs.

“Before” and “After” spacing often are incorporated into styles for body text and headings in order to achieve uniform spacing between paragraphs in a document.

Because “Before” and/or “After” spacing automatically add white space between paragraphs, you’ll have to get into the habit of not pressing the Enter key twice to move the cursor to the next paragraph.

“Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style”

In all versions of Word from 2007 through 2016, there is an additional item in the Paragraph dialog labeled “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.” If the option is enabled (i.e., the box to the left of the option is checked), Word will ignore your “Before” and/or “After” settings.[5]

Microsoft applies this setting to certain built-in styles but not to others. It is disabled by default for the Normal paragraph style, which means you can increase the “Before” and/or “After” paragraph spacing for text using the Normal style and your changes will go into effect as you expect. On the other hand, the setting is enabled by default for bulleted and numbered lists, which means that items (paragraphs) in the list will not be separated by white space unless you specifically insert such space manually.

If you have configured Before and/or After spacing to add space between paragraphs but Word appears to be ignoring your settings, open the Paragraph dialog and note whether “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style” is checked. If it is, close the dialog, select the list (or other text) to which you want to add Before and/or After spacing, reopen the Paragraph dialog, uncheck the option, reset the Before and/or After spacing if necessary, and click “OK.” Now your extra Before and/or After spacing should go into effect as you intended.

[1] In all versions of Word, you can open the paragraph dialog by using the keyboard shortcut Alt O, P. In versions of Word prior to Word 2007, you also have the option of clicking the Format menu, Paragraph; in Word 2007 and Word 2010, you can click the dialog launcher at the lower right corner of the Paragraph group in the Home tab.

[2] There is some confusion / disagreement over the exact amount of leading typically produced with Times New Roman. Pinpointing this figure is less important to me than making sure that readers understand the general concept and also have a sense of the approximate degree to which the text will expand if you use single or double spacing, rather than an “Exact” figure.

[3] Microsoft also changed the “Normal” paragraph style by adding 10 points of “After” spacing in Word 2007 and Word 2010 and 8 points of “After” spacing in Word 2013 and Word 2016. See the following sections for an explanation of “Before” and “After” spacing.

[4] “Before” and “After” spacing can be configured independently, of course.

[5] Note that even with the box checked, you’ll be able to add space between paragraphs manually—i.e., by pressing the Enter key.

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