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Some publisher styles (APA, Chicago, SVMono Springer, …) require that tables contain no vertical lines (“unless [the lines] indicate the structure of the data” for Chicago). Why such a generic and simultaneously one-sided requirement?

Sometimes you don't have enough horizontal space to separate table columns. Moreover, you don't have to take care about perspective because a table is not a photo or a photo-like illustration. Of course, you could hypothetically claim that vertical lines could be seen as clutter (as in Why should lines be avoided in tables?), but then the requirement would apply also to horizontal lines, not only to the vertical ones.

And we're not convinced about the generality of the no-vertical-lines-in-tables rule because the examples where the line removal pays off are ad-hoc; you could easily construct little-horizontal-space examples where line removal makes columns hard to separate visually, or where table columns are grouped and groups have to be visually separated.

So why do certain publishers insist on requirements such as “The layout of your tables should not contain any vertical lines”?

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    No one can really answer this but publishers... and it has more to do with style guides for that publisher than some universal rule or law. -- Why do some people hate Miracle Whip, but others prefer it over mayonnaise?
    – Scott
    Jun 25, 2022 at 0:01
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    A guess would be that it could cause readability issues. Including vertical lines could potentially make reading along the rows more difficult, interrupting the eye as it scans across the page. Horizontal lines don't interrupt the flow of the text in that way, so these aren't so problematic.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 25, 2022 at 0:09
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    @Scott google.com/search?q=no+vertical+lines+in+tables leads to MANY publishers; this suggests some universal principle. As a clever publisher, you don't impose a requirement unless you think you need it.
    – user157607
    Jun 25, 2022 at 0:10
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    Why do most banks use blue for their logo? No legitimate reason.. but by using blue they are generally "seen" as part of the financial industry. It's just a choice they made. Banks can, and do, use greens and reds as well. Publisher's aren't any different. Several may choose the same overall style aspects so that when you switch between publishers, there's an air of familiarity to the work. But it's still all merely style choices.
    – Scott
    Jun 25, 2022 at 0:34
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    @Scott No, there is an explanation for blue, though I would not call it legitimate, I'd simply call it damn good. Blue conveys faithfulness, security and order. We associate blue with lots of positive qualities, such as sympathy, harmony, or friendship. This is a general, statistical statement, I admit, and exceptions might exist, of course. Still, your love for blue most likely comes from you lying as a kid in a buggy, seeing a blue sky, and feeling happy. Anyhow, I heard you, thank you, and let us speak about vertical lines here.
    – user157607
    Jun 25, 2022 at 1:02

2 Answers 2

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First of all, there are some important differences between horizontal and vertical lines, which all eventually originate from the pertinent writing systems being horizontal and not vertical.

  • It is standard to arrange tables such that the same type of information is arranged in columns, not rows. This in turn is because in a horizontal writing system, it is better to align similar information on top of each other instead of next to each other. As a result, the majority of academic tables have distinct index rows (a.k.a. header rows), but no index columns. By distinct, I mean that they contain a totally different type of information, e.g., “weight” as opposed to “5 kg”. It makes sense to separate these index rows visually by a horizontal line. (This line also serves as a visual indicator that the agglomeration of characters you are viewing is a table.)

  • Since the height of rows is usually much smaller than the width of columns in a horizontal writing system, readers are much more prone to jump across rows than columns. Further, the aforementioned predominance of columns makes it often easy to notice if you are in the wrong column. Thus, while horizontal lines may be called for for eye guidance occasionally, vertical lines hardly ever are.

  • In many academic contexts, it is common to have footnotes below a table. To separate these, it makes sense to add a horizontal line at the very bottom. In a horizontal writing system, we usually wouldn’t put something like footnotes on the side of a table.

In my experience, the vast majority of academic tables need exactly one line, namely to separate the index row (header) from the body. A horizontal line at the very bottom can be added as a stylistic choice or to separate footnotes or similar. Everything else is unnecessary and visual clutter. There are rare occasions where more lines, sometimes even vertical ones, are called for, but those make up for far less than one percent.

Also, in my experience, most academics tasked with formatting a table will use every line they possibly can, resulting in badly readable tables. Thus, I can fully understand that publishers radically restrict line use in their rules as a default. The same publishers may even accept vertical lines, if the authors can argue that their particular table requires them. So, this rule may not be cast in stone, but presenting it as if it were is the lesser evil.

you could easily construct little-horizontal-space examples where line removal makes columns hard to separate visually, or where table columns are grouped and groups have to be visually separated.

I would guess that even in the majority of these special cases, you end up with a better table if you first force the authors to work without vertical lines and think of better ways to present the data, e.g., by reducing the need for horizontal space or visually separating groups otherwise.

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Ok, so i dont have my references with me. But basically the reasoning is as follows:

  • Cramming too much data in a small space makes it harder to absorb
  • A human can separate things by using whitespace just as well as by a line.
  • Adding the line makes things harder to absorb because it adds more clutter.

So essentially you want this line because you want to put too much data in and you dont have enough whitespace. There are many ways you can arrange more space like rounding numbers, aligning differently, transposing the table etc.

In the end your supposed to summarize data. Then share raw data somehow else. But obviously this is only a oppinion for presenting data for understandability and from design appeal. YMMV.

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  • Thanks! This kind of reasoning doesn't differentiate between horizontal and vertical lines, as opposed to the publishers.
    – user157607
    Jun 29, 2022 at 0:20

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