Whitespace and invisible characters

One thing I’ve been meaning to create as part of Using Type is a heightened visibility for the invisible, non-printing, and otherwise under-appreciated formatting characters that happen to not make any marks on the page, but do happen to contribute quite a lot to our reading experience.


Whitespace characters

Let’s start with space. A most frequently employed character, space has the largest key on the keyboard. Its width is set by the type designer to optimally divide words on a page. The dead giveaway in a novice-designed typeface: the space is almost always much too wide.

The em space is as wide as the type size is high (an em space in 12 pt Bodoni is 12 pt wide), quite a generous gap should you require it. Letterpress printers traditionally begin each line with an em space, called an em quad. The en space is half an em space in width, and from the em you divide the rest of the fractional space units such as third space, quarter space, etc. The hair space is the narrowest of the spaces, a size down from the thin space, and the two are commonly used hemming in either end of an em dash, or between the initials in a name such as E. B. White’s. Okay, technically there are spaces and similar characters narrower than the hair space, because they’re zero-width non-spacing spaces—very useful in languages that run all together without explicit word spaces (Have I ever even heard of one of these? I know I’ve heard its spoken english equivalent.) but until today these have remained pretty far off my radar.

For setting numbers the figure space can come in handy, its width the same as the zero character. Similarly the punctuation space is set to the width of the period or comma. Anyone know what this one’s traditionally used for?

The non-breaking space, or no-break space does more than push apart words, it also binds the words (or neighboring word-like elements) on either side of it together, so that if one word breaks to the next line, they both do. These are helpful when things like proper nouns or phone numbers flow in a column of text, and you don’t want the entity to be line broken. I mentioned this last week, but you may not have caught it. Applying a no break character style is another way of accomplishing this behavior. Just highlight some text, from the top right menu of the Character palette, select No Break, and then keeping that same text selected, create a new character style. Apply this style to another bit of copy, and now any spaces or hyphens in it will act as non-breaking spaces, or non-breaking hyphens.


Whitespace-1Paragraph break (hard return) is the most familiar of these. Paragraphs in InDesign are delineated by the single press of the return key. (There are no hard returns inside paragraphs.) Unless you’re being lazy on purpose, don’t insert multiple hard returns in a document as a means of adjusting vertical spacing. Just adjust the spacing.

The forced line break (soft return) is a good solution for arbitrarily kicking the remainder of a line down one without breaking the structure of the paragraph. If you have a paragraph style applied, soft returns, typed Shift + Return on the Mac or Shift + Enter on Windows, maintain the style over the multiple broken lines.

Column break also ends a paragraph, sending the text below it to the top of the next column. On the Mac, access this by striking Enter on the number keypad. Similarly, text frame break, page break, and some I wasn’t familiar with exist in InDesign, odd page break, and even page break send the text below it to the top of the next frame or page or whatever as is given in the name of each.

Format & Positioning

Center-aligned tabTabs are fantastic for organizing tabular information. (They’re not very helpful at all on the web, though the web has other means of handling similar requirements.) I’ve written a short piece on the proper use of tabs that I’ll refer you to since they’re pretty versatile.

Whitespace-2The indent to here character hardly gets the attention it deserves. See it above, just preceding the word built; at the top of the indent. I use it all the time in conjunction with the tab character to simplify formatting of short documents down to a few keystrokes. Try it out yourself. Just click in the middle of a text column in InDesign and type Command + Backslash. (Mac) or Control + Backslash (Windows). The technique can be used for ex-dented text, hanging punctuation, or plain old columnar formatting. For longer texts working across multiple paragraphs, I recommend achieving the same effect with first-line indent and paragraph indent paragraph styles, since they don’t require the insertion of special characters.
When used inside a paragraph whose alignment settings are specify to Justify all lines, flush space is a gaseous space that expands to take the shape of its container. If you only use one flush space on a line that contains several other normal spaces, the flush space will collapse the normal spaces and word spacing down to size, and occupy all the rest of the available space.

End nested style here is another one I didn’t know about until today’s looking around. It doesn’t force InDesign to stop using a nested style just by virtue of inserting it somewhere in the middle of a paragraph style that makes use of nested styles. It rather serves as a custom marker character that can be referenced by InDesign’s nested styles settings, in the same way you can reference a soft return (forced line break) or tab, or whatever. The difference is that the end nested style here character can fit anywhere, even in the middle of a word without disrupting the flow of things. That’s it. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Dan Reynolds’s Malabar for the illustrations. Using Type is a regular Thursday series.

End of story


  1. Posted July 28, 2013 at 7:53 PM | Permalink

    Sure you have. Chinese and Japanese don’t use spaces, but they aren’t alphabetic. The best-known alphabetic language that requires zero-width space is Thai, because you can’t break a Thai word at the end of a line, so you need the ZWSP to know where running Thai text can be broken. (The Thai version of Windows has special software to figure out more or less accurately where the word-breaks are, so it doesn’t require ZWSP in most cases.) Lastly, the languages and scripts of India traditionally did not have interword space, but now they are often written with space.

  2. soloowl
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 8:49 AM | Permalink

    The Unicode characters Zero Width Joiner and Zero Width Non-Joiner were created for Mongolian.

  3. soloowl
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 8:53 AM | Permalink

    Wikipedia lists about two dozen different spaces, with a clever diagram to show how wide they are.

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