Word: What are “points,” anyway?

November 16, 2015 at 4:50 pm 1 comment

One of the line spacing options in Word is “Exactly” line spacing, which almost always is configured in points.  In my experience, although many people have heard the term “points,” few have a clear understanding of what it means.

In typography, a point (abbreviated “pt”) is a fixed unit of measurement representing the height of the characters.  (Some of you might know that the term “pitch” represents the width of the characters.)

There are 72 points in an inch.  Twelve (12) points – 1/6 of an inch – is approximately one line.  However, text to which Exactly 12 points line spacing has been applied is more compressed vertically (i.e., more “squished”) than single-spaced text created with the same font.  Likewise, text to which Exactly 24 points line spacing has been applied is more compressed vertically than double-spaced text created with the same font.[1]

You can test for yourself.  Type two short paragraphs that are at least two lines long.  Apply single spacing to one of the paragraphs and Exactly 12 spacing to the other.  Can you see a difference in terms of the height of the characters and how much white space exists between the lines of the paragraphs?  It is even more noticeable if you apply double spacing to one of the paragraphs and Exactly 24 to the other.

When should you use points (i.e., “Exactly” line spacing)?  Typically, you’ll use points only in pleadings (litigation documents) where the text is supposed to align with line numbers embedded in the left margin.  This is a standard requirement for California pleadings (including documents filed in Federal District Court in California), as well as for pleadings in certain other jurisdictions.

For letters, contracts, estate documents, and the like, simple single and double spacing usually work fine.  (However, if you are comfortable working with styles, you might want to create a style that uses single line spacing plus 12 points of After spacing.  Or you can change the default line spacing to single spacing plus 12 points of After spacing.[2]  The 12 points After spacing adds a line of white space after the text of a paragraph so that you can press Enter once, rather than twice, to start a new paragraph two lines below.)

NOTE:  The ideal setup for a California pleading template, in my opinion, involves line numbers that use Exactly 24 point line spacing.  When Exactly 24 point line spacing has been applied to the line numbers, you need to use Exactly 24 points – not actual Double Spacing – for  any “pleading double spaced” paragraphs (my term) and Exactly 12 points – not actual Single Spacing – for any “pleading single spaced” paragraphs (again, my term).

Don’t assume that Exactly 24 points / Exactly 12 points will always work; the spacing of the pleading line numbers can vary from document to document, especially if you are working with pleadings obtained from different organizations.  To determine the correct setting for line spacing (in points) in a specific pleading, you must go into the document’s header, right-click within the pleading line numbers, choose “Paragraph,” and make note of the line spacing – that is, the number of points displayed under Spacing, Line spacing, Exactly.  Your “pleading double spacing” must match that figure; your “pleading single spacing” must be half of the figure.  (Word usually rounds up to the first decimal place, so if your pleading line numbers are set at Exactly 22.75 points and you configure your “pleading single spacing” to be 11.375 points, Word probably will change that figure to 11.4.)

See my blog post, Aligning text with pleading line numbers, for a fuller discussion of this issue.

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[1]  For a more in-depth discussion about points, line spacing, and paragraph spacing, see my blog post “Understanding line and paragraph spacing in Word”.  Note that even that post provides a somewhat simplified overview of typographical concepts, which are highly complex.

[2] To do so, open the Paragraph dialog, set the line spacing to Single and the After spacing to 12 pt – making sure that the Before spacing is set to 0 (zero) – and then click the “Set As Default” button at the bottom of the Paragraph dialog.  Word will prompt you to make the setting the default only in the current document or in the template that the document is based on.  Do think twice before changing the default setting in the underlying template.  That might or might not be a desirable outcome.

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