I've asked a typesetter and she didn't even know about first line indentation on subsequent paragraphs.

Neither did I ever encounter it in "real" life but have to struggle with it's removal every other time when facing latex tasks.

Where in western Europe is it usually used?


  • 5
    The indentation marks the beginning of a new paragraph, since the first paragraph needs no indentation, since there is no preceding paragraph. You can get rid of this layout with \usepackage{parskip}
    – DG'
    Feb 20, 2022 at 16:30
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    As is usual in typography, the purpose of the indentation is to facilitate reading: it gives a visual clue about the structure of the text.
    – Denis
    Feb 20, 2022 at 16:38
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    If you don't want the paragraphs to be indented, \setlength{\parindent}{0pt} should be enough. If you want to change the 1st paragraph setting, it can be done via babel or polyglossia (it's language-dependent: the 1st paragraph no-indentation rule is not the same everywhere). According to my experience: in German books it's very common that the 1st paragraph is not indented, and the following ones are; in Italy, on the contrary, all the paragraphs are usually indented. In both cases, the purpose is to improve readability; in traditional printing there's no vertical spacing btw. paragraphs. Feb 20, 2022 at 17:18
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    I have to ask where you looked as I would say that (in English language books at least) using paragraph indentation is by far the most common indication of a new paragraph. Feb 20, 2022 at 19:21
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    I've just checked five arbitrary books from my bookshelf, both English and German ones – they all do have indented paragraphs...
    – cgnieder
    Feb 20, 2022 at 19:22

5 Answers 5


There are publications that indicate paragraphs by leaving some extra space between them (most often with ragged right typesetting) but I would claim that they are in the minority if you go into a library and open books at random, so I'm a bit surprised you state you have never encountered them in "real" life".

Perhaps your background is CJK scripts in which case the situation is probably different.

The most common approach in "western" typography (which is where TeX originate) is to typeset text justified and (last not least to save space) not to put extra white space between paragraphs. If you do this, then you have the issue that the last line of a paragraph can become completely filled once in a while. To be able to nevertheless always enable the reader to see that a new paragraph has started the first line therefore typically indented by a small amount (and since after a heading this visual clue is unnecessary it is normally left out). That's about the background.

But there is no reason to "struggle" with it. If you do prefer a different style, LaTeX actually makes it easy for you to adjust your documents to any style and there is no need to go \noindent on every paragraph as you might have feared from the description on overleaf (that just describes how to turn it off for individual paragraphs which is sometimes useful. Instead use a package such as parskip or a class that sets up the style you prefer automatically.

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    +1. Publications with a space between paragraphs may be a minority in a library, but since most publications (news articles, posts on social networks, this answer,...) people read in 2022 real life, it is not that surprising that the OP encountered a huge majority of publications with spaces separating paragraphs. Also, both kinds may be used in a work of fiction: I have a copy of Jurassic Park (French editions) next to me and "scenes" are separated by spaces, while paragraphs in a given scene use indentations.
    – Taladris
    Feb 23, 2022 at 13:11
  • My experience also shows that indentation in books prevails (in 90% cases). Is this because parskip is generally inappropriate or ugly or bad typography and should not be used? Or is it just matter of tradition?
    – Pygmalion
    Jun 26 at 5:57

It is the common practice in Western European and English language documents.

Robert Bringhurst in his The Elements of Typographic Style, Hartley & Marks, 1999 (or later), the typographer's bible, says:

2.3.1 Set opening paragraphs flush left.

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

Another way of indicating a paragraph is to have no indentation but to precede it with a blank line; this of course can be problematic if the breaks between paragraphs coincide with page breaks.

  • Paragraph breaks coinciding with page breaks can be problematic with first line indented paragraph separation as well as vertical white space paragraph separation - especially if there are multiple single line paragraphs back to back. Widow and orphan control helps, but too many short paragraphs nevertheless get in the way.
    – Krazy Glew
    Feb 22, 2022 at 0:12
  • Even if one uses both white space separated and indented paragraphs there can be a problem at page breaks if the paragraphs only consist of a single line. This can be avoided if every paragraph is indicated by some graphic, instead of white space, like perhaps \P. But for consistency this would have to be applied to every paragraph in the document which, I think, could be annoying to the reader. Still, it's up to the author to decide the best for the work. Feb 23, 2022 at 17:59
  • Agreed, except “it’s up to the author“ only If author controls or is aware of page boundaries. Not true if printing to different page size than original, in general if displayed on devices or in frames with different sizes and/or reflow. Most content now not read on paper but is displayed on arbitrary devices. IMHO typography that can cope with reflow and not require author page size awareness is desirable. I keep trying to find some other way, but keep coming back to your suggestion of having a subtle graphic indication for start or end of paragraph. Blank indent is a start, but too subtle.
    – Krazy Glew
    Feb 23, 2022 at 18:14
  • Are you suggesting that LaTeX is not sufficient for the current document typesetting requirements? I have always believed that (La)TeX was for typesetting printed documents. I feel that generating stuff to be displayed by arbitrary programs is part of a different field. I hope we are having fun. Feb 23, 2022 at 18:40
  • No, I think LaTeX is fine. Just that we may need to evolve new typographical conventions for the world were paper is a minority. Most “printed” documents are actually read as PDF nowadays. PDF is Ill-matched to modern systems. // Relevance to this question: we agree that white space indented paragraphs are common, and useful. Contrasting to the OPY suspect is used to blank line separated paragraphs.
    – Krazy Glew
    Feb 23, 2022 at 18:44

Here are my two cents :).

  • Normally, a text reflects the structure of the idea/content/thoughts that is described.
  • Therefore, a text is divided into several logical units.
  • Examples for such logical units are parts, chapters, sections, [...], paragraphs, and sentences.
  • Main point: There are several ways to reflect this logical structure visually. So the answer to the first part of your question ("What's the purpose of paragraph first-line indentation [...]") is that the purpose is to visually highlight the logical structure of the text (division into paragraphs).
  • In the case of paragraphs, one typically uses vertical whitespace between paragraphs (parskip) OR indent the first line of a paragraph (parindent).
  • Below, I attached an excerpt of the famous book "The Elements of Style". The book seems to be famous among LaTeX users/experts, see also Peter Wilson's great answer.

enter image description here Remarks: This screenshot was taken from the ebook, Kindle Cloud Reader, version of the book. The point I tried to - and failed - to make was the written content of the screenshot and not how it looks. The content describes that a paragraph is an important concept of written language etc.

PS: In my personal experience, in German engineering, using parskip is more common than parindent (as pointed out by Frank in his comment, this may be a result of using MS Word). I attached a screenshot of my PhD thesis. But the idea is the same: Each paragraph is about one thought/topic/logical unit. parskip or parindent are just a way to communicate the beginning/end of paragraphs so that the reader understands better the logical structure. enter image description here

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    I believe that you are essentially thinking of a paragraph like a document division per section or chapter. Running text is often split into chunks (paragraphs) where no title is needed; that I think is what the question is about, nothing to do with \paragraph. Feb 20, 2022 at 19:40
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    I admit that I am a GOM (Grumpy Old Man) but some words have different connotations. It is even more difficult if they are in a second language rather than the first. I'm guessing that your native language is German and I would be hopelessly lost in trying to understand/answer in that language. All that I can recall is Drei erwaschener und ein kind and Hein und zeruch, both of which are very probably completely wrong. Feb 20, 2022 at 20:00
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    well, for what it is worth the PhD of my father in German engineering used paragraph indentation. Anyhow, different style are common and I guess Word hasn'T helpd in this regard, but if we look at, say novels in Western European language I think we see that most use paragraph indentation and justified text. However, the fact that the OP ask about about in "Western typography" made me wonder if he or she is normally writing in CJK where the rules and the conventions are quite different. Feb 20, 2022 at 23:53
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    Interesting that this excerpt exhibits several bad practices: (1) indent in the first paragraph after the heading; (2) thin spaces around the em dash; (3) the first semicolon should be a colon IMHO.
    – user207421
    Feb 23, 2022 at 4:14
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    @MannyC I didn't expect so many reactions :). I added the first picture because of the written content and not about the looks :). Feb 23, 2022 at 14:16

It's actually quite common. I see it in German books all the time (and almost certainly not just there). Consider this image from Tschichold’s seminal work »Erfreuliche Drucksachen durch gute Typographie«: enter image description here

It's simply a space-saving alternative to having more vertical space.

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    So I've taken a couple of random books from my shelves: they all used it, including James Joyce's “Dubliners” (Penguin Popular Classics Edition) and Henry Miller's “Tropic of Cancer”(The Complete Unexpurgated Grove Press Edition).
    – Ingmar
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:15
  • Thank you for that truly useful example
    – jjk
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:36

I somewhat disagree with the purposes given so far, namely that this is to visually mark paragraphs.

While having such a visual distinction is a consequence of the indentation, it is not the purpose. Not justifying the last line would suffice for this (assuming justified text). The ambiguity in the rare case of a full last line can be avoided in historical manual typesetting by just slightly adjusting the justification gap in the paragraph or adding a respective penalty in to the TeX linebreaking algorithm. If it was only for this ambiguity, historical typesetters wouldn’t have introduced the indenting convention.

The main benefit of indenting paragraphs is that it gives the reader some visual reference points on the left side of the text which they can use when jumping from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. Without the indent, you have just a homogeneous wall of text and it happens more easily that you accidentally skip a line or read the same line twice.

There is no need for this at the beginning of a section (or similar), hence indenting is usually not used there. Also if paragraphs are spaced, this already provides visual reference points and obviates the need for indenting.

As for the popularity, everything I have ever encountered had either:

  • indented paragraphs,
  • vertically spaced paragraphs,
  • no paragraphs at all (e.g., a brochure),
  • strong typography and design flaws (overly long lines, bad colour contrast, inappropriate typeface), i.e., it was probably not professionally typeset.

And I am the kind of person who notices such things. (I read mostly German and English material.)

  • 2
    I'm unclear on the distinction you are drawing between visually marking paragraphs and being able to visually distinguish paragraph starts when scanning. These are surely two sides of the same coin? Feb 22, 2022 at 8:37
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    @JackAidley: Visually marking paragraphs is done by anything that tells you were a paragraph ends. For this it suffices to not justify the last line or, to take an extreme example, use a special character like at the end of this sentence. ∎ By contrast, giving some structure to the left side of a block of text does not need to be about paragraphs at all, e.g., you could also use line numbers for every fifth line (but of course using paragraphs for this is nicer).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 22, 2022 at 12:20
  • What you describe seems to be another example of something being done right for the wrong reasons, or at least something right being explained with the wrong reasons. It happens very often with this kind of cognitive psychology issues. People severely underestimate the importance of orientation in all kinds of works [citation needed]. Feb 23, 2022 at 10:46
  • @AplusKminus: something right being explained with the wrong reasons – Hence my answer. And yes, I don’t have any citations to offer, only the argument that recognising paragraphs as such is not such a big issue.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 23, 2022 at 11:06
  • I agree with you that indicating the start of a new paragraph when scanning down the left margin is another reason, but historically I would say you are wrong by claiming all that is needed is not to make last line unjustified to indicate a paragraph end. The problem for a typesetter in the days of manually setting text was that when you reached the last line you had to work with what is left and if that is a full line then you are in trouble and have to reset your whole paragraph. (TeX can do that nicely for you but that is a newer technology). Feb 23, 2022 at 17:02

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