Section 2.12 in the Spotlight

Paragraph Indents

In a typed document, each new paragraph should begin with a first-line indent, applied either with the Tab key or with your word processor’s indentation feature rather than the Space bar. One-half inch is the traditional measure for an indent.

Exceptions: When a paragraph is interrupted by a prose or poetry extract, list, equation, or the like, the text that continues after the interruption begins flush left (i.e., with no first-line indent) unless it begins a new paragraph. Paragraphs immediately following a chapter title or subheading also may begin flush left (it’s optional).

“Wait a minute!” you may be asking. “Why doesn’t this blog post have indented paragraphs?” That’s because there are different guidelines for online display. On a computer screen, it can be tiresome to read long pages of type not broken up by any white space. And when there’s white space between paragraphs, there’s no need for first-line indents as well.

In typewritten and typeset documents (as opposed to online content), paragraph indents offer an important visual cue to the beginning of a new paragraph. Even if your copy will eventually be published online, an editor of the typed copy needs to see where each new paragraph begins, and the conventional first-line indent is the best way to show it.

See CMOS 17, 2.11, for more on tabs and indents.

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6 thoughts on “Section 2.12 in the Spotlight

  1. I am writing a historical novel, from the WW2 era. There is a lot of dialogue. I have always thought each character’s words, started a new paragraph. If this is the case, do these paragraphs need to be indented also?

    • Yes, it’s conventional to indent a new paragraph when changing speakers. Please see the example at CMOS 13.39.

  2. I never thought about the differences between online paragraphs and typed copy. I tend to use the white space between, rather than indenting, but then again, most of my work is viewed online and doesn’t require the indentation such as I’d find in a novel. Funny how I never thought of it, even though I deal with both styles in their appropriate places.

  3. If the purpose of an indent is to show that a new paragraph is starting, why does the first paragraph in a work or section need to be indented?

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