Why Paragraphs? Why Single Column?

It never hurts to restate one’s first principles, especially when new readers come along who don’t know what all the fuss is about. Why is it better for the text of Scripture to be set in paragraphs instead of the traditional verse-per-line format? Why is a single column setting preferable to the much-more-common double-column arrangement? Does any of this really make a difference? For most of us, the meaty, controversial topic where Scripture is concerned is translation. How the words end up on the page is a matter of indifference. It seems trivial to lock horns over mere formatting when we could be grappling over Hebrew and Greek, or sparring about which English words in which combination are comprehensible to which English speakers. I understand. I find all that stuff fascinating, too. But there’s something to be said for matters usually dismissed as superficial.

If you don’t mind, I’ll begin with a story. As a writer, I’ve been known to frequent what’s called a “workshop.” This is a regular get-together at a coffee shop or some other plausible venue, in which a group of authors trade photocopies of their work for purposes of critique. These manuscripts have never been eyeballed by an editor, so their formatting depends entirely on the author — and these days, technology being what it is, a lot of manuscripts are passed back and forth electronically, losing formatting as they go. At one meeting, a writer passed out a stack of pages for discussion at the next meeting. I took them home and read them a few days later. To me, it looked like a rather long prose poem. Lines ended randomly but often in interesting ways, some paragraphs had extra space in between, while others were jammed up against each other. I wrestled with some of the stranger line endings, and giving the author the benefit of the doubt, assumed he’d undertaken something extremely subtle, something I couldn’t quite figure out. But I tried, and eventually came up with a few pages of notes.

When we met, the first thing he did was apologize for the formatting. His short story (!) had been e-mailed back and forth, breaking the lines in odd places and adding lots of mysterious spacing he couldn’t account for. Most of my commentary was based on the assumption that I was reading poetry. By re-formatting the lines, things became clear. The piece wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, but it wasn’t as clever, either. I read it, yes, but I read into it, too. All because of a glitch in formatting.

Now, consider the way Bibles have traditionally been designed. Because of the amount of text involved, the type is often small, and so typographers lay it out in two columns. Once verse numbers were added in the sixteenth century to make it easier to find specific passages, it made sense to begin each new paragraph with a verse number to make it that much simpler. Scholars came along and added notes, so a center column emerged, and some very helpful people concerned with proper pronunciation started breaking individual words into their constituent syllables and accenting as needed. As a result, some Bibles look a little bit like people who’ve had too much plastic surgery done. It takes some effort to see past the surface.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal if all books looked like this. We’d be used to it and we’d know how to read them. But most books are set in single columns with a paragraphed text, and the designers tend to avoid anything that gets in the way of the reading experience. As a result, the Bible looks very different to modern eyes than the sort of books we’re used to reading.

English translators often share a form of this concern. They want their work to be phrased in language the reader can comprehend, devoid of forsooths. How ironic, then, that so many recent translations, meant to read like other books, don’t look like them.

As many of you know, I grew up with the King James Version. I’m grateful. When I was in grad school, I didn’t need an interpreter to explain seventeenth century prose. But believe me, I sat through more than a few sermons based on a misunderstanding of the archaic text. The language had changed, but the speaker didn’t realize it. That’s the kind of mishap folks who didn’t grow up with the KJV like to smile at — but unfortunately, archaic diction isn’t the only way to misread a sentence.

Here’s another: study a phrase in isolation. The traditional verse-per-line format actually promotes the practice, since it divides sentences into phrases wherever a verse number interrupts. By heightening the emphasis on isolated phrases, the sentences that actually carry the full thought are de-emphasized. And don’t get me started on the paragraphs. Anyone who has studied the Bible at the verse level only to switch to the paragraph level can tell you it’s a very different experience. The question you have to ask is, how was it meant to be read? I can build a topical sermon based on a series of phrases pulled from various parts of the Bible, but if my thought process is unsupported by any particular passage in Scripture — i.e., if I end up arguing points never argued by any biblical authors — is the result really accurate?

The reason why paragraphed texts are important, and why single column settings should be more widely available, is that they both encourage the proper way of reading the Bible. Rather than treating it like a pithy, cryptic phrasebook, these formatting options suggest contextual reading that focuses on the ideas behind the words rather than free-association based on a word here or there.

Far be it from me to argue that nothing but formatting matters. But formatting does matter. In the same way that a translator, to do good work, needs to consider both the source language and the one the audience speaks, a Bible designer has to do more than fit words on the page or figure out how to distinguish cross references from verse numbers. The designer has to think about the reading experience and avoid choices that might channel it into counterproductive paths. Sadly, other considerations have often predominated. As a result, it’s easy to find a Bible that looks like a dictionary — book for looking things up — and hard to find one that looks like it’s meant for reading.

I don’t want to eliminate double-column settings or even verse-per-line formatting. All I’m after is more good options. Now that’s not too much to ask.

22 Comments on “Why Paragraphs? Why Single Column?

  1. Amen to all the above, but another plea too: verse numbers taken out of the text and assigned to the margin. I have just bought a s/hand RSV (Bible Society schools edition for $6): it it double-columned, paragraphed, but with chapter and verse numbers all set in the margins. I was surprised but how clean and wonderfully uncluttered the text looks. Early editions of the NEB, JerB and NJB did the same I think.

  2. This is why I love the ESV literary Bible so much – I just wish it was in a better binding… (sewn, nice leather)and possible a tad smaller. But other than that it is possible the best Bible I have ever used – it (strangely enough) makes me want to read the Old Testament and that should be a “testament” to itself.
    Any inside scoop if they will do for the literary Bible what they are doing for the study Bible? I’d forgo the study Bible to have a quality edition of the literary Bible.

  3. I could not agree more. Texts and translating preferences aside, and focusing solely on formatting, nothing is of greater importance to me than single column, paragraphed! (caveat — type size large enough to read comfortably. I love the set up of the ESV personal reference and purchased one before it was released, but I get a headache if reading more than a few verses). When Mark first listed The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible of the King James Version, I immediately purchased one. I grew up with the King James and, while I do not use the translation as my primary Bible for study, teaching or preaching, I love reading from it at the office. The format, type, font, etc. are outstanding. My dream Bible, however, is simple: Single column, paragraphed, 10pt text, no red letter, brown highland goatskin (or comparable binding material — of which I know not), NRSV, no apocrypha, text only. Mark, thanks for again stressing the importance of the single column, paragraphed format. Oh yeah, thanks for this blog!

  4. Dittos on the amens. This is one reason I enjoy reading the J.B. Phillips NT more than any other.
    Frank Viola wrote a pithy piece excoriating our tendency to think in chapter and verse. I think he’s right. This is why the Bible reading plan I advocate revolves around reading entire books in one sitting, examining Scripture in its original textual format. It’s a revelation when we read this way.

  5. This touches on the main reason I use my TNIV The Books of the Bible for my daily reading. It’s not my preferred translation, not glued, nor leather bound, but the layout on the page is perfect for me. Thank to Mark for exposing it to me, and I have been promoting it ever since. I also really enjoy the layout of my old NEB, which is fantastic. Mark reviewed a NEB paperback NT, and I was able to find the both testaments w/ deuterocanon in a sewn hardback. Here’s the link for my daily bible if anyone’s interested:

  6. Oops. That should have read “not sewn” as it is in fact a glued paperback.

  7. Amen. I hail from a tradition that doesn’t read enough but focuses on verses and words. As a teacher, it is a hard mind-set to overcome. Context!
    That’s what these formatted Bibles help with. I think there needs to be an international push to focus on READING! Thanks, Mark. While I know your focus may be on Bible layout and binding, you are having an influence in pointing all to JUST READ IT!!!

  8. I am going to stick my neck out and be different here. I know that the original manuscripts didn’t have verse or chapter breaks and were of course not double column, so I am not going to argue that point.
    However, I like a double column format. I am also fine with a center column, but I prefer a column on either side of the double columns of text (so you really end up with four columns). I also like the verse breaks because it helps me remember where things I want to go back to are located. I know that I am old fashoned, some would say archaic, in my tastes, but that is just what I like. I like my Bible to look and feel different than any other book I own.
    Having said that, I think Mark makes a great point about context. I don’t think a person should ever assume he grasps the meaning of a verse until he has read at least the twenty verses before and after it. Too many wacky ideas have come about because a person will pull out a single verse and build a theology out of it in a vacuum. In any document, context matters.

    • My sentiments, EXACTLY! The verse format allows me to re-find something quickly; I can many times even know which page (left or right) that it is going to be on, or whether it is top, middle, or bottom of the page. A little photographic memory, I guess. Also agree about the importance of context and that simply takes discipline.

  9. I appreciate Mark’s concern for readable design of the printed page.
    Mark makes a great point here that goes beyond simply emphasizing better attention to context. He writes:
    “I can build a topical sermon based on a series of phrases pulled from various parts of the Bible, but if my thought process is unsupported by any particular passage in Scripture — i.e., if I end up arguing points never argued by any biblical authors — is the result really accurate?”
    It’s a great question, and I applaud the concern for reproducible interpretation. Is the Bible a single coherent web, a series of coherent passages, or a series of coherent books brought together under a single cover? No doubt, readers of this blog will fall on different points of the continuum on this issue, but paragraphed settings of text can help readers see the passage-by-passage or book-by-book approach MUCH better. The weakness of the “Bible = one huge book” approach is that we can lose awareness of the concerns of the biblical authors and unknowingly force our own concerns onto Scripture.
    If something as seemingly simple as page format can help people better understand the concerns and agendas of the biblical authors and not simply import their own concerns onto the text, then more power to designers!
    Thanks for a great post, Mark.

  10. Well written and great points. The only additional comment I’ll make is that quality of the paper is critical. Bleed-through tires my eyes so fast, often being unable to read for more than 5 minutes or so. Yet, I can sit at my latop and pull up my Logos Bible Software and read for hours. Why? Primarily because of the quality and print of paper. This is one thing that has impressed me with Cambridge Bibles.

  11. Good thoughts…I’ve grown to like the single-column format more and more. The TNIV Study Bible is single-column and I believe the ESV Study Bible that’s coming in October will be single-column as well.
    I particularly like how the Psalms and poetic books look in single-column and feel it’s a more natural way to read them.

  12. Hi. A friend gave me a very old Phillips Bible, the Gospels In Modern English. For some reason I cannot find it anywhere and am devastated. I would like to replace it. I think it was from the 1950’s or 60’s, or 70’s I can’t be sure, I can’t remember. It didn’t have a dust cover but the hard cover had an all over symmetric pattern in reds and blues, maybe some purple and white, I really can’t remember, I only had it for a few weeks before it disappeared. I know that I can get other versions of that Bible from that era but I would like to find the same Bible as I lost, with the same cover. Also, it may even have been the whole Bible. Did Phillips do a whole Bible? or am I mistaken?
    Please can you help me? Thanking you in advance for any light you can shed on the matter.
    Debbie Temple

  13. Debbie, there are still plenty of used copies available; see Amazon’s resellers or abebooks for possibilities. Get one of the old (~1958-1960) Macmillan editions. They were nicely bound hardbacks and the newer ones (esp. the Macmillan “student editions”) are poorly-glued junk.
    I don’t know of any nice leather-bound editions but would love to hear of any.
    He did 4 of the OT prophets, that’s it other than “The New Testament in Modern English.” More on him in his Wikipedia entry.
    I like Phillips too. And his page layout design seems to follow all the dictums that Mark preaches here.

  14. Debbie,
    In case you haven’t found your replacement for your lost Phillips’ New Testament in Modern english, there are a a two Amazon resellers (I am not related to them in any way) that have your book with the red and blue symmetrical pattern (they are both student editions – one is 1966 and the other is 1969). They are going for just a few dollars. Hope this helps.

  15. This is approximately what I wish one of my print bibles looked like except for the fact that they just don’t make paper as thin as my PC screen, where it’s also okay to have lots of wasted space:

    Genesis 1:1-31

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

    The earth was without form, and empty; darkness was over the face of the deep. The Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light.”

    And there was light.

    God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day…

    Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse.

    And it was so.

    God called the expanse Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day…

    Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.”

    And it was so.

    God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering of the waters he called Seas, and God saw that it was good. God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, from the earth.”

    And it was so.

    The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.

    God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day…

    Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night; let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.”

    And it was so.

    Thus God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, and he made the stars also. God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.

    God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day…

    Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” Thus God created the great sea creatures and every living creature which moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.

    God saw that it was good, and God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And the evening and the morning were the fifth day…

    Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.”

    And it was so.

    Thus God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind, and God saw that it was good.

    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

    Thus God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

    God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

    Also God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. To every beast of the earth, to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps upon the earth, to everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”

    And it was so.

    God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day…

    Genesis 2:1-25

    Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts, so on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.

  16. As a pastor, I find the verse by verse format much easier to us in preaching and study. I can read a verse, speak to the congregation and easily return to where I left off.

    My problem is finding a nice NKJV with larger font (11-12) in a verse by verse format. I also like the single column for preaching, but do no know of a NKJV with verse by verse and single column. I use NKJV because most to our people use it.

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