Why don’t writers indent paragraphs anymore?

The once-meaningful swatch of white space has become a casualty of the Internet age.

I recently downloaded a very helpful e-book from a company that I admire and respect greatly.

The offering was pertinent, topical and practical. I learned a lot of what I expected to learn; the title was descriptive and accurate. So, what’s my beef?

The paragraphs were indented. Yes, old-school indented. Like all the papers I wrote in college in AP style. Like all my high school themes. Like my handwritten letters to my children that I wrote when they were babies, more than 20 years ago.

It was jarring, really. Super distracting. Most of the digital content I read is not indented. Blog posts. Newspaper website articles. White papers, Facebook entries, emails, tweets. All of them flush left, otherwise known as “block style.”

What I’m trying to remember is—when did indenting become so old-fashioned that it now hurts my eyes to look at it? After a little sleuthing I think I have found the origins of this trend, and I wanted to share my findings.

Back in the Middle Ages, paragraphs were first denoted by a little symbol called the pilcrow: ¶. You might recognize it if you’ve ever done any tedious editing in the “track changes” mode in Microsoft Word. Then, as our language evolved, the pilcrow was dropped and the space it used to occupy was left over—a vestigial tail now known as the “indent.”

It appears that indenting paragraphs was alive and well until HTML came along. In HTML, the “tab” was not recognized as blank space, and the space simply collapsed. The result is that the text appears “flush left” or as “block text,” which is a perfectly acceptable form of typesetting. There is one qualifier: There must be a line of blank space between paragraphs for this to work; otherwise, there is no break between thoughts.

Now, with Web copy in CSS, it makes no difference, because it allows you to style the paragraph however you want with no “indent collapse.” In the meantime, it appears that many people grew to prefer the cleaner look of the block text and to our retrained eye, indentation now appears clumsy, old-fashioned and incorrect.

Because I am a word nerd, I just had to share my findings with you—and to beg you, please: Don’t indent. It looks old-fashioned.

You could, of course, use a pilcrow, if you really want to prove that you’re old-fashioned—or that you’re using “track changes.”

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