19

I've just looked through every printed book I've bought over the past year and noticed a curious pattern that I'd never given much thought until now (due to currently preparing a manuscript for publication).

Why is it that some books (maybe all books?) don't indent the first paragraph directly after a chapter or subsection title but then proceed to indent all others?

Is this the standard approach? Has it always been this way, and I've simply not noticed such a minor detail? And should I mimic this?

  • @Wrzlprmft Indeed so, as I thought it might prove. But people on English Language & Usage don't like questions about spacing, leading, and page layout there, nor about fonts and such, so I moved it hither as the fifth off-topic close-vote. – tchrist Mar 3 '17 at 13:20
  • Answers seem to address "indentation of the first line of a paragraph" rather than what the question title says. I think the question could be clarified by actually saying "the first line of a paragraph". When I read the question, I thought "What? I have never seen all paragraphs after the first one being indented, who does that?" Only by reading some answers, I was able to guess, that the question is seemingly about the first line only. – Zelphir Kaltstahl Mar 3 '17 at 21:55
18

You are correct. This is the way these things are done: only the
paragraphs following the first are indented.

     I can little hope to better express why we do this than
Robert Bringhurst does when he explains in his widely acclaimed
“typographer’s bible”, The Elements of Typographic Style:

2.3 Blocks and Paragraphs

2.3.1 Set opening paragraphs flush left.

The function of a paragraph indent is to mark a pause, setting
the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is
preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and
can therefore be omitted, as it is here.

2.3.2 In continuous text, mark all paragraphs after the first
with an indent of at least one en.

Typography like other arts, from cooking to choreography, in-
volves a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the
dependably consistent and the unforeseen. Typographers gen-
erally take pleasure in the unpredictable length of the paragraph
while accepting the simple and reassuring consistency of the
paragraph indent. The prose paragraph and its verse counter-
part, the stanza, are basic units of linguistic thought and literary
style. The typographer must articulate them enough to make
them clear, yet not so strongly the form instead of the con-
tent steals the show. If the units of thought, or the boundaries
between thoughts, look more important than the thoughts
themselves, the typographer has failed.

  • 6
    I’ve always found the Bringhurst answer a little incomplete. It explains why the indent isn’t needed for the first para like it is for subsequent ones, but that doesn’t really explain why it’s generally omitted — other things being equal, one might expect it to be indented anyway for consistency (just like we still capitalise the beginning of the first sentence, even though it doesn’t serve the same function it does in other sentences). It would be nice to hear a positive explanation of why the convention is to not indent it. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Mar 3 '17 at 15:33
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine , "Bringhurst ... doesn’t really explain why it’s generally omitted". Maybe it is typically omitted, these days, because typesetters tend to follow Bringhurst's recommendation that it isn't needed ;) – sampablokuper Mar 3 '17 at 23:22
10

This is a common approach, but amounts to a stylistic choice. A quick, random check through my library found five books with every paragraph of a chapter indented but the first, one with every paragraph indented, and two with no indentation at all. What you are seeing may have originated with using drop cap lettering:

example paragraph with drop cap

It is easy to imagine as one evolves from using drop caps, that not indenting the first paragraph would be a choice a printer might make.

  • 1
    @tchrist Thatsa spicy meatball! 😏 There are more elaborate examples at my link, but I intentionally chose the plainest one because my point was only that they exist, not how fancy they could be. – RichF Mar 3 '17 at 4:44
  • A drop cap acts as an indent of sorts, so indenting as well would be redundant – Zach Saucier Mar 3 '17 at 12:47
  • This answer treats with the topic of drop-caps at some length. – tchrist Mar 3 '17 at 13:22
  • @tchrist Just so you know, you are at the heart of a newly found bug, but in a good way. Comment on migrated answer not linked to my newly created account – RichF Mar 3 '17 at 20:47
6

Generally, the first paragraph optically separates better because there is the chapter title just above it, with significant spacing between the two. This is why the first paragraph will generally not need an indent.

All following paragraphs however become more crowded, with little or no added vertical space in between, so the indent makes more sense starting from the second paragraph.

This is something a designer chooses to use, or not. There is no set rule in this regard. I'm sure there are plenty of books out there that do indent even the first paragraph. Most experienced book designers however will probably not indent the first paragraph in a chapter.

Large publishers will have a policy on this and will consistently apply it for their entire book collections.

Since you are working on your own book, i will definitely advise against indenting the first paragraphs. Here's another question that relates to the technical side of this:

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