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I know that it can be configured, but my question is why 10 pts is the default size. The reason I ask is that a professor has said it was too small to read and I'm worried a proposal could be affected by this. Perhaps knowing why 10pts is the default will assuage my worries.

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Take any book out of your shelf, it is most likely written in 10 pt. That is the most common. Thesis often are typeset in a bigger font, but don't ask me why. Maybe those old professors can't so good any more. If you are in doubt, show your advisor some sample pages. –  Johannes_B Dec 2 '13 at 18:27
    
Welcome to TeX.SX! –  Claudio Fiandrino Dec 2 '13 at 18:35
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"Theses often are typeset in a bigger font": it's simply to make them look longer. :) –  Federico Poloni Dec 3 '13 at 9:53
    
If you are writing an academic paper, you follow the issued instructions or you run the risk that it may not even get marked. You will have been advised of this. - If you are advised that 10pt is too small and, in answer to accessibility aspects or to test if you are capable of following assignment instruction, this is a valid instruction, use 11pt. Configure it in the preamble. Where is the issue here? Or is how to do this what you are asking? In which case, ask a coherent question, e.g., `\documentclass[11pt,a4paper]{article}'. –  David Crosswell Dec 4 '13 at 6:15
    
@DavidCrosswell: this professor and the proposal (not a class one) are not related (he also hasn't read this proposal); this is not an assignment and for the proposal there are no instructions when it comes to this font size or margins. My concern is that if a professor thought it was too small (probably because his eyes don't work as well from age), other professors who will read this may feel the same way and this could bias them against my proposal. –  sciencenewbie Dec 4 '13 at 19:25

2 Answers 2

up vote 26 down vote accepted

The reason why the most widely used word processor sets the default size to 12pt is that it was born when affordable laser printers had a resolution of 300 dpi (dots per inch) and the fonts available at that time (the famous “35 fonts”) did not render well at the sizes that were most common in real typography, that is, 10 or 11 points.

TeX fonts (roughly, Computer Modern or other fonts based on METAFONT) could instead be produced with parameters specially tailored for a given printer and they gave much better results even at low resolution like 300 dpi. They were bitmap fonts, of course.

With the development of printing technology, home laser printers have resolutions at 1200 dpi or better, so the problem isn't a real issue any more, provided the Type1 (or OpenType or TrueType) fonts are well hinted. It was too late for changing the default size in word processors, which remained 12 points.

Why university requirements still have 12 point size? The answer is obvious. But with a good printer, 12 point is really too big; use 11 or even 10.

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I've wondered about this as well, and I always figured it was because 12pt is closest to typewriter size, and the early word processors were meant to mimic the look and feel of typewriters. Never did any research to verify that though. Could this also be a factor? –  crmdgn Dec 2 '13 at 19:47
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+1 for the history. That said, my old eyes prefer 12 point most of the time. –  Ethan Bolker Dec 2 '13 at 20:40
    
I don't think this is the only reason. The standard serifed font for MSWord for most of its life has been Times or Times New Roman, and this is a much narrower font (about 10% narrower compared to Computer Modern). –  Alan Munn Dec 2 '13 at 20:46
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@Zack “New York” was specially tailored for dot matrix printers, where smaller sizes were almost out of the question. Horrible font, I should say. –  egreg Dec 2 '13 at 23:59
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It occurs to me that one should also consider the paper size. Plain TeX's defaults (10 point text, \hsize=6.5in \vsize=8.9in \hoffset=0pt \voffset=0pt) are appropriate for the Journal of the American Mathematical Society's 7" x 10" trim size, but on 8.5" x 11" or A4 paper, they produce ridiculously huge margins. If you set more reasonable margins (say, 0.5in all around on 8.5x11) but keep the 10 point text and the single column, your text block will be too wide for comfortable reading; 12pt is more reasonable. –  Zack Dec 3 '13 at 0:06

The 10pt come from a different time and different circumstances.

Don Knuth printed his books with professional equipment with a few thousand DPI. His equipment could easily outresolve the human eye in typical reading distance. Printed characters tended to spread a bit on paper, compared to the vector graphics they were made of. The Computer Modern compensates for that by design. That is why the Computer Modern looks like it looks, a tiny bit too thin here and there on screen and on laserprints. And good in printed books.

10pt is fine if the printing quality is very good, the paper is very good and the result has typical reading-book-size.

If somebody uses an office printer, typically fine font features cannot be reproduced at 10pt. Especially with very fine fonts and more especially if the font is made to spread a bit on paper. Typical office paper is bad for long reading too. The paper formats A4 and letter have about twice the size of the pages of reading-books where 10pt looks good. So the natural reading distance is bigger than with a book. Lines with 10pt on A4 easily become too long.

For A4 pages and office printes I prefer 11pt. With a 600dpi-1200dpi-printer with a good postscript engine and a not too fine font with good hinting, the results should be good enough. With a good office printer (like some Brother laserprinters) and good paper even 10pt or fine fonts are fine for my eyes. Typophiles might disagree but should admit, that the results are good enough to read without pain.

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