On National Punctuation Day, Let’s Celebrate White Space

During the newspaper design revolution of the 1980s and 90s, writers often made fun of white space. Bad idea, scribes.

Inside the text, white space is a writer’s and a reader’s best friend. White space helps emphasize what is most important on the page or screen, provides a kind of visual index that clues in the reader to the main parts of the story, and ventilates tedious grayness, relaxing the eyes and reassuring the mind.

White space, I would argue, should be considered a form of punctuation, partly because other traditional marks of punctuation work have been designed to create it. Let’s take, for example, borscht belt comedian Henny Youngman’s most famous joke, which I found punctuated four different ways online:

  1. Take my wife, please.
  2. Take my wife … please.
  3. Take my wife. Please.
  4. Take my wife — please.

If the secret of humor is timing, then the secret of timing on the page is punctuation. In this case, my preference is #4. The comma offers the least separation between the premise and the punch line. The ellipsis is too airy. The period separates elements of a complete thought, turning what should be one sentence into two. But the dash manages to both connect and separate the elements. Notice that part of that separation is the creation of white space between “wife” and “please.”

One of the great purveyors of white space is the bulleted list, a textual element that gained prominence during the design revolution and has found a comfortable new home on the Internet. A bullet comes to English from French and means “little ball,” a reference not just to a gun projectile but also — in printing — to “a heavy dot used to highlight a passage.” A list of such highlighted passages is called a bulleted list.

Such a strategy offers writers and readers these benefits:

  • The ability to check information at a glance.
  • Information conveyed in tight spaces.
  • Order, at least the appearance of order.
  • Relief to the eye and the mind in the form of white space.

My word processor allows me to render bullets in a variety of styles, including the oxymoronic square bullet, a favorite choice of those who construct those handsome, but oh-so-tedious, PowerPoint presentations. Whatever marks the beginning of each line — arrows, asterisks, circles — these are bulleted lists.

The bulleted list is a great tool as long as you don’t riddle your work with bullets. The bullet proclaims: “I am about to make this as clear as I can for you, so please pay attention.” And, most important, the list leaves room for more white space on the page, turning the list into a self-contained mini-genre within the story. Even the alliterate gravitate to magazine stories such as: “Ten ways to please your man,” or “The 50 greatest guitar solos of all time,” or even “The 25 greatest lists of all time.”

In my first draft of this essay, the last two paragraphs were one paragraph; when I turned my eyes to the screen, it was obvious how dense and gray it looked. So I divided the long paragraph into two shorter ones. Why? To create white space, of course.

This effect has been codified on the Web with the <p> tag in HTML, which automatically creates white space before and after each paragraph. Likewise, the <ul> tag, which creates a bulleted list, and the <ol> tag, which creates a numbered list, both create white space above and below.

All writers can decide where a sentence will end, but only the poets have license to shorten a line to create white space. In a sense the poet is a literary page designer:

The Yankees and Rays:
A hard race to the finish,
The pennant at stake.

Even this spontaneous baseball haiku lets me, the poet, create all that white space to the right.

For the prose writer, on the page and online, white space is created by the variation of paragraph length. If the paragraphs are consistently too short, the effect will be too much white space, leaving the elements looking disconnected and the work disjointed. If the paragraphs are too long and the page or screen too gray, the reader will sense tedium and turn away.

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Finally, because the paragraph creates white space, the words at the end of the paragraph (next to the white space) will get special attention. That is why writers see that hot spot as a point of emphasis — which may, in fact, prove that white space is the most powerful and pervasive punctuation mark of them all.

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