Columns of text in a book or newspaper are generally formatted in the fully justified style (Figure 1), where the text always lines up exactly on both the left and right edges.
Fig. 1: The “justify text” button (circled in red) can be found in nearly every text editor.
Justified text works well if columns are wide and there are a lot of words to fill out each line.
But it becomes aesthetically dubious if the columns are narrow or there aren’t enough words, which result in either:
- Extremely wide spaces between words if there are too few words (example: “this______column”)
- Excessive spacing between letters if there is only one word (example: “c__o__l__u__m__n”)
In the worst-case scenario, a column of text may look like:
See figure 2 for a comparison of fully-justified text and ragged-edge (flush left) text.
Fig. 2: Part A (left) shows a few problems with fully-justified text: “the age of” has excessive spacing and the between-letter spacing in “w i s d o m” is aesthetically questionable. Unfortunately, the ragged edge of the text in part B (formatted as “flush left / ragged right”) is not a huge improvement either.
Previously, a publisher would at least know how wide a column of text would be, so they could manually adjust the text to fit in an aesthetically-appealing fashion.
But with modern web pages and e-books, font sizes and column widths can be changed by the user—so there’s no way for a publisher to plan around it.
This problem can be fixed by using semantically-aware SMART justification to make each line of text an optimal length.
This is accomplished as follows:
If a line of text is too short, it can be lengthened by the following steps:
- Add meaningless filler words (e.g. “um,” “like,” “basically,” “you know”)
- Add superfluous adjectives (like “very” or “extremely”)
- Replace words with longer synonyms (e.g. “rain -> precipitation”—this can also be used in reverse to shorten a line)
- Replace pronounces with their antecedent (e.g. “her scepter” -> “Queen Elizabeth’s scepter”)
Figure 3 shows the performance of each method of text justification. The “meaning-aware SMART justification” is the only method that avoids ragged edges while also keeping a fixed amount of whitespace between words.
Fig. 3: Left: a traditional example of fully-justified text. Middle: flush-left text, with an unappealing ragged right edge. Right: the vastly improved “smart” justification method, which has been recently made possible by advances in computational technology and machine learning.
Application of this method to famous books:
- Original: “But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” (The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway)
- Modified with superfluous filler words and synonyms: “But man is, generally, not made for defeat,” he stated. “Basically, a man can be destroyed but, as you know, not forced to surrender.”
- Original: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (1984, Orwell)
- Modified: “War is peace. Additionally, the state of freedom is slavery. Finally, in conclusion, ignorance is strength, it must be admitted.”
- Original: “In general, people only ask for advice that they may not follow it; or, if they should follow it, that they may have somebody to blame for having given it”.” (The Three Musketeers, Dumas)
- Modified: “In general, people only make a request for suggestions, that those same people may not abide by it. Or, if they should in fact follow it, that those people may have somebody to blame or hold responsible for having given it”.”
PROS: This is the ONLY text-formatting method that both 1) preserves inter-word spacing AND 2) aligns text in neat columns.
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