first-line indentsBetween one and four times the point size

A first-line in­dent is the most com­mon way to sig­nal the start of a new para­graph. The other com­mon way is with space be­tween para­graphs.

First-line in­dents and space be­tween para­graphs have the same re­la­tion­ship as belts and sus­penders. You only need one to get the job done. Us­ing both is a mis­take. If you use a first-line in­dent on a para­graph, don’t use space be­tween. And vice versa.

Typ­i­cally, a first-line in­dent should be no smaller than the point size of the text, oth­er­wise it’ll be hard to see. The in­dent should be no big­ger than four times the point size, oth­er­wise the first line will seem dis­con­nected from the left edge of the text block. So a para­graph set in 12 point should have a first-line in­dent of 12–48 points.

But use your judg­ment—con­sider the width of the text block when set­ting the first-line in­dent. For in­stance, nar­row text blocks should have first-line in­dents to­ward the low end of this range. Wider text blocks should have big­ger indents.

The skateboarder was denied entry
to the applicant’s home in the gated
community known as Luxuria.
wrong
The skateboarder was denied
entry to the applicant’s home in the
gated community known as Luxuria.
wrong
The skateboarder was denied entry
to the applicant’s home in the gated
community known as Luxuria.
right

Don’t use word spaces or tabs to in­dent the first line—as you re­call from white-space char­ac­ters, that’s not what they’re for. Para­graphs in­dented with word spaces or tabs are hard to keep con­sis­tent and dif­fi­cult to re­for­mat. Use the right tool for the job.

How to set a first-line indent

Word Right-click in the text and se­lect ParagraphIndents and Spacing. Un­der Indentation, from the popup menu la­beled Special, se­lect First line and en­ter the mea­sure­ment in the ad­ja­cent box.

Pages ViewShow Toolbar (or op­tion + ⌘ + t) → Format but­ton → Layout pane → un­der Indents, in the box la­beled First, en­ter the measurement.

CSS Use the text-in­dent property

by the way
  • It’s pos­si­ble to set a neg­a­tive first-line in­dent, or hang­ing in­dent. Hang­ing in­dents are used in lists to cre­ate a rec­tan­gu­lar text block with a list bul­let that dan­gles off to the left. (Like this one.) Avoid us­ing a hang­ing in­dent with­out a bul­let—your text block should not re­sem­ble Ok­la­homa. Text should only be in­dented inward.

  • rop caps are, I sup­pose, an­other op­tion for the first para­graph—the first let­ter of the para­graph is en­larged so it de­scends three or four lines. In cer­tain dec­o­ra­tive con­texts, they’re tol­er­a­ble. But if you’re just us­ing the drop-cap func­tion in your type­set­ting pro­gram, it’ll just look pre­ten­tious and dorky.