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To Indent or Not to Indent?

Because of our familiarity with website writing, writers have now adopted the same formatting for everything we write. The issue is that our experience of texts shifts based on the formatting. Do we indent or not indent is indeed the question.

I am in a writing workshop that is made up of smart, educated writers. We have a doctor, a couple of business people, a journalist, a radio producer, and an educator. Most of them are well traveled and all of them are well read. I would dare say this is a group who knows a few things.

In the first few weeks, when we started submitting our prose pieces, I began to notice something. Almost none of the other writers were using indentation in their work. First I thought it was a glitch, or an oversight, but then it became a trend that snowballed into an outbreak. In the feedbacks and forums, I started calling a couple of the students out about it in a slightly less than harsh manner.

I couldn’t help wonder though if I had missed some newsletter that announced the retirement of indentation. How could something so big have passed me by?

Blame Technology?      

Initially, I tried to blame my computer. I haven’t updated to all the most recent software, so I thought perhaps it was a technical problem, and surely not the other writers’ conscious choice.

When I myself was still able to indent, I moved on to thinking it might be a regional thing. Most of the participants in the workshop live in Canada, so I thought maybe it was a Canadian habit. Only one other writing student in the workshop was brought up under the U.S. educational system, and we both took pains to use indentation in our submissions. I work as an EFL professor in Japan teaching writing courses to non-native university students, and the textbooks I use teach indentation as a basic rule of paragraph writing. These textbooks are from U.S publishing companies though, so I settled on it being a cultural issue.

However, then I noticed that our class instructor, who is certainly no slouch, was also writing her instructions, notes and feedback without using indentation…and she is American. Having no other source to blame it on, I had to bring it up with her.

She explained that the class website platform we use is not formatted to accommodate indentation. Even if you indented your writing, the format of the site would flush all of the writing to the left as soon as you posted your comments.

So, she and the others, including myself, had to adapt to the parameters by changing how we were writing.

Rather than beginning a new paragraph that was indented, which reflected a change in character, tone, or scene, instead we had to put in extra white space between sections.

Now, if the writing in our class website were the only time we didn’t see any indentation, that’d be one thing, but when we submit our manuscripts, we do it in the form of a Microsoft word file (.doc or .docx) and are not beholden to the format of the class website. Yet still, these were mostly appearing sans-indentation.

I thought about this, and tried researching new trends in indentation on the Internet. Of course, the Internet is about as helpful with regard to providing concrete information about new breakthroughs for indentation as it is with giving me reasons I have had a sore throat for the past week. I found a number of conflicting reports, unrelated to geography or schooling, age, or operating system.

When I finished my search, I had the nagging feeling that maybe simple laziness was the culprit, and I was also slightly paranoid that I had a rare form of grammar cancer.

An Issue of Evolving with the Times?

In the past, I have been accused of being a fuddy-duddy. New ways of doing things (such as people having face-to-face conversations with their cellphones in hand) sometimes rub me the wrong way, and I’m not shy about voicing my discontent.

There are many acceptable cases for not using the indent such as when writing a business letter, or if a particular publication expresses the rule of no indentation, or as mentioned, on particular web sites (the irony hasn’t escaped me that this very essay may likely not avoid appearing sans-indentation as soon as it is party to the programming whims of this particular website).

Indeed, the formats used in many contemporary and emerging common methods of communication are bypassing traditional norms of written communication. Perhaps it is tricky to program indentation, or perhaps programmers don’t consider it important, or maybe on computer screens indenting brings about odd physiological responses in the eye mapping of text, who knows.

The beauty of language is that it is a living thing that evolves. When it does not, it dies. (Latin has had the same grammar for centuries.) From time to time though, languages become extinct in order to make way for more useful forms of communication. We should be vigilant and pick apart our language in order to deliberate whether we should maintain certain norms, or whether it’s time to let them fade into the obscurity of that which is now deemed inefficient.

Staying the Course: Indentation or Bust

I personally believe it is best to use indentation for a few reasons: It looks as if care were put into the overall visual effect of the work.

I feel it provides the writer with more time for reflection, as to the message conveyed in the paragraph, and that it warrants the pinkie taxing press that creates the indentation. It also adds another tool to the writer’s box, which is being able to use an extra line of white space from time to time to separate a thought or flashback with even more clarity. If I add a few spaces at the beginning of a paragraph about my mother, the reader understands that this is a new theme or idea to be presented about her. If I add a full blank space, and an indent, it lets the reader know that the following is a shift in the flow of the main body of work. Perhaps we will learn of a story flashed back from my mother’s past, or a side note about her best recipe.

However, if we regularly use spaces to separate our paragraphs, our ability to use them for certain effect becomes watered down, like my mom’s lemonade (one of her lesser recipes), and we are simply spilling out a potent splash of ingredient to the flow of our writing.

What the Others Think: a Mixed Review

After my slightly less than harsh calling out of my intelligent peers about their indentation habits, I got some feedback. Their remarks ranged from militant quill gripping fists in the air proclaiming how we as writers are the protectors of the sacred art form of the scribes and that we should not go lazily into the long electric dark ages; and some just e-shrugged and mentioned that we live in an age where presidential proclamations are regurgitated into 140 characters and emojis are becoming an actual lexicon.

Is a space as wide as a thumbprint really worth preservation, or will indentation fade into nostalgia-filled obscurity and be looked back upon like the illustrated drop cap?

For my money, I believe it is a part of our formatting worth upholding, though with the antagonism of formats created by programmers, as opposed to those created by linguists, and sheer laziness, sometimes by those same linguists, it might just be a losing battle. Time will tell. I’ll say this: if we as writers have the mental wherewithal to remember to charge our phones before they die, I feel confident that we can indent when we need to.

Originally from Memphis TN, Gregory Price has lived and taught in Europe, China, and now works as an adjunct professor at Tokyo University of Science in Japan. He holds an M.A. in ESL and a BFA for painting and sculpture. He is currently producing abstract photography based on radial symmetry of textures from various cities around the world and writing a novel.
A portfolio of some of his visual art can be found HERE.