Poetry in Single Column Settings

One of the advantages modern Bibles possess over their older counterparts is paragraphed text. When you don't present the entire Bible in verse form, the passages that really are verse are easier to distinguish. But this is a double-edged sword. Paragraphed texts in two-column settings don't have an awful lot of room for a line of verse to fit. As a result, sections of poetry can be badly cut up. 

Case in point: A Bible Design Blog reader e-mailed me recently wondering if there was a formatting error in his R. L. Allan Reader's Edition ESV. As he scanned through Isaiah 66, he found a strange line break in the middle of verse 2. The word "be" is all alone on the line, with the finishing "declares the Lord" on the line below, spaced way over. Like so:


Consulting the Classic Reference setting in his Allan's ESV1, he found exactly the same thing. If it was an error, it had been repeated over time without being caught. And after all, it looks like an error, doesn't it? You can imagine the typesetter accidentially hitting the return button and not catching the mistake.

It's not a mistake, of course. This is intentional. The translators, in versifying the text, wanted to set the dialogue tag apart from what was being said. The easiest way to explain this is with a picture:


The image above is from the Allan's Personal Size Reference ESV, and it illustrates (better than any words of mine can) why single column settings are a natural progression once the text is paragraphed. Two-column settings often mangle poetry, while single-column settings free the verse. The translators' intention re: formatting is communicated much better by the PSR than by the Classic Reference.

Admittedly, with its generous center column reference allowance and narrower text columns, the Classic Reference exaggerates the effect somewhat. In other two-column settings, it's there, only a bit less pronounced. For example, here's the same passage in the Pitt Minion layout, which dials the dissonance down considerably:


The Crossway Legacy ESV sees the Personal Size Reference and raises it, upping the elegance factor. Here the translators' intended formatting is readily apparent. You see immediately what they're doing, with no visual ambiguity:


And in the magically proportioned Cambridge Clarion setting, these dialogue tags get the selah treatment, moving all the way to the righthand margin, making them stand out a bit more:


Don't get me wrong: single column settings can be very challenging to pull off. But when the designer gets them right, they give readers a much better sense of what the poetry is meant to look like. Not the frenetically diced phrases of a two-column layout, but long and flowing lines (mostly) free of unnecessary breaks. This, my friends, is a Good Thing.

22 Comments on “Poetry in Single Column Settings

  1. I think the single-column approach is best not only for poetry, but also for prose. As a culture used to reading stories in single-column books, we get a better sense of the story in Scripture AS story when the narratives are presented in a familiar way.

  2. Frenetically diced? Have you been watching me cook?
    I enjoyed reading your post. Form can and does make a difference and we need to attend to even the smallest details, peacefully not frenetically.
    Renee Mathis

  3. Double-column is just easier for me to digest, and I end up reading more, which is a good thing!
    I wonder if some genius can design a bible that puts the psalms in single-column, and for extra credit, also has verse in other books in single-column, with double-column wrapping it. Or something.

  4. Thanks for this post–as someone who teaches literature and who loves poetry, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the single-column approach. With the perspective you’ve provided, readers of the Bible can see even more clearly the beauty of the poetry in God’s word, which compliments the beauty of redemptive history and the beauty of God’s heart for his people.

  5. Mark, I believe your blog has been instrumental in finally getting Bible publishers to invest in producing good single column Bibles. Even Zondervan got in the game this past month with the release of their own single column format, with references in the inside margin. I grabbed their SCR Bible the other day just to try it out. They’re coming to market with a single column text Bible soon. Perhaps both of those versions will find there way to a review on your blog. Thanks again Mark for your part in getting all the wonderful SC options we now have to enjoy!

  6. The ISBNs for the SCR Zondervan NIV-11s are 0310442524, 0310442494, 0310442486, and 0310442516. These remind me of the TNIV Reference Bible, which, to my eye, have too many words per line.
    The SC Text editions that CaDave mentions are due May 22, 2012 and will be ISBNs 0310402638, 031040262X, and 0310402646. (I believe the text sample Zondervan presently has on line is in error, being indistinguishable from that for the SCR. The identical page count looks suspicious as well.)
    Probably the nicest surprise to me is their upcoming settings of Biblica’s verseless “The Books of the the Bible”, due July 2012 with ISBNs 0310400570, 0310402077, and 0310402468. If they’re sewn like most of Zondervan’s recent NIVs (“Lay-flat” to use their term) I’ll be quick to replace my perfect-bind TNIV versions with this brown TruTone. (I find reading the NIV-11 pretty much the same as the TNIV.) Also, the 100 extra listed pages make me hope the typeface is a little wider than the TNIV one I’m used to.
    Lastly, I’ll note that the NIV Archaeological SB still uses the 1984 text. There was a new edition released last summer with little fanfare, but it’s the venerable KVJ (ISBNs 0310942616 and 0310942624) not the NIV-11.

  7. Thanks bill. Also, Nelson’s had a single column NKJV Bible on the market for a while now. Mark covered a pre-production layout in a prior post, but has not yet reviewed the final version that went to market. Point being, there’s other SC format versions available or soon to be available this year. They may not have the top shelf bindings, but that’s an easy fix given the rebinders we’re now aware of and using thanks again to this blog.

  8. @CaDave…Those Nelsons were unfortunately glued, not sewn, so a rebinder can’t do anything about that. Garbage in, garbage…
    Many here have complained about the covers, but I’ve found the olive-tinged covers (“l’heure verte”) quite endearing and one of the nicer bonded leathers. I have both the kjv and nkjv and although the covers are wearing well, there are pages coming loose in both. Nelson later came out with a “Classic Series” genuine black leather version but it’s the same glued text block. Bummer.
    Negatives aside, the layout is great and it’s my favorite setting of the NKJV. Thanks for mentioning them again. I wish Nelson would commit to sewn bindings like Zondervan apparently has.

  9. @bill…I recently saw the latest edition of Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible (brown instead of blue) in hardcover and it has a sewn binding. I think I saw another hardcover of theirs that is sewn too. So a slight glimmer of hope! In my experience, hardcovers aren’t any more likely to be sewn than leather (imitation or actual.) Their special 400th Anniversary KJV Study Bible has a sewn binding too. The latter is the best thing (construction wise) I’ve seen them put out since the heyday of the Signature Series.
    I think I may pick up the KJV and NKJV single columns lest they go out of print soon. Other than their version of TruTone the covers are indeed wretched. The “genuine leather” is better but the cover of the copy I saw is paper thin, IIRC. From what I recall, the paper may be at least slightly better than the norm too. At any rate, I’ve seen worse. I find that I need larger print in a single column setting and the print on those editions looks big enough and appears to be larger than Crossway’s PSR. Another plus is that both of these are “black letter” which is a rarity for any Nelson edition that isn’t a Study Bible.
    It does look like more Zondervan editions are being sewn now, which was definitely not the case over the past 10-15 years. I got a Zondervan NASB95 Classic Reference Bible in 1999 (Genuine Leather) that is glued, back when I didn’t know any better. However, the paper is better than what you find in many Bibles today. I have a Zondervan KJV in blue bonded leather from the same time period. It is basically a “beater” but it is sewn. It was made in Korea whereas the NASB was made in the USA.

  10. Communicated with Cambridge a couple weeks back and they’ve told me they were deliberating on another run of the NIV Single Column Text Bible using NIV2011. Thought it could come to market in 2013. Mark has previously posted a review of this Bible. Its a winner. Is there a single column text format available for NLT? A Tyndale Select NLT in brown calfskin with single column format would be a nice option.

  11. I gotta’ wonder if folks aren’t developing an attitude of “the more I read NIV11 the more I like NLTse”!
    The only single-column text NLTs I know of is a re-ordered edition called the One-Year Chronological bible. The print samples look quite nice. I’ve inquired if the hardover bindings are sewn, which would make them candidates for a nice re-bind.
    There’s also two Study Bible versions of the NLT (NLT SB and Life Application SB) with settings similar to the NIV Archaeological SB.
    But the NLT I like best is the 2-column Premium Slimline Ref Ed in Large Print. The few refs if has are at the end of paragraphs so there’s no loss of real estate to a center column. That makes the columns quite wide (it’s a 7″ wide volume anyway) so there’s a reasonable number of words-per-line for a “smooth” reading experience. Check it out.
    Alas it’s red-letter. The only black-letter NLT I know of is the Mosaic lectionary-based setting of the NLT (smaller text, center-col refs, and a fair amount of paper bleed-through) but which might also be worth a look.

  12. bill, I’ve owned all the NLT Bible’s you’ve referenced. None of them hit the sweet spot. In past years I was stuck with hauling around Study Bible bricks (for any translation) in order to have a single column format. This has now changed and I’m incredibly grateful for publisher’s responding to consumer demand. Tyndale/NLT is the last major publisher holdout and I hope they come on board the SC wave soon.

  13. By the way, I asked CBD if the One-Year Chronological bible (ISBN 9781414337661) was sewn or glued and rec’d this reply:
    “This Bible appears to have a glued binding, but does lay flat when open.”
    So it’s not a quality-bound edition (suitable for rebind) either, even if it’s quite a pleasant s.c. layout.
    I went and checked my favorite, the 2-column Premium Slimline Ref Ed Large Print, and it’s glued as well! Guess the thinline feature made it flexible enough that I’ve been fooled for the past year. So I don’t expect it’s going to hold up well either.
    There are some nicely bound NLT 1st editions (square instead of diamond logo) but they’re closer to the Ken Taylor original, and none are s.c.

  14. Anyone know of a paragraph styled single column reference NASB or NKJV with good margins? Thanks!

  15. I love to take care of my bibles. I have an ESV PSR that I keep in its original box. I cringe when I see people who leave their bible in their cars, or have them abandoned at home.

  16. @Matt Robison – not saying anything about the translation, or the quality of the binding, but there is a bible out there like you mention. It’s a God’s Word translation thinline (isbn 0801013607). The Psalms, poetry and prophets are all or mostly in single column paragraph setting, with everything else double column paragraph. The layout looks great, but again not so sure of the translation or binding.

  17. The single column, esp. the Clarion have been a major disappointment. I much prefer the verse by verse double format column for studying. Just shows, all comes down to personal preferences and what one has gotten used to over the years and well satisfied therewith.

  18. @Matt Robison I know of one other Bible that mixes single/double column text nearly this way: the New Jerusalem Bible Pocket Edition, a Catholic Bible. It prints whole books in either single or double column. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (but not Ecclesiastes!) all get the single column treatment; everything else, including Isaiah, is double column. This is a nice little edition that would be about the size of the ESV Compact, but it’s thicker due to the extra 300 pages of Deuterocanonicals. It used to be published in the USA by Doubleday in a really crap hardcover, but I believe it’s now only available in a nice leather-bound edition from DLT in the UK (though it can be found on amazon.com). I have two copies, a burgundy zippered edition published in the early 90s, and a more recent non-zippered edition. The older copy is much thinner and has better paper; it was printed in England. The newer one is still quite nice, but it’s thicker and printed in, naturally, China. The contrast with the ESV Compact is interesting: NJB uses some kind of Times-y font that’s plain but classy; a slightly wider but slightly shorter page and wider but shorter text columns. To me the ESV Compact feels a bit more cramped.
    A Bible that precisely reverses this double/single column mix is the Harpercollins NRSV — I think it’s their “Standard” edition. They print prose in single-column, unjustified, and poetry in double-column. I think they just wanted to reduce white space. It’s nice but weird.

  19. One thing to keep in mind is that paragraph divisions were not part of the original documents. Also, compare the peotic line divisions between the ESV and the NASB and you will see that line divisions in poetical passages are “somewhat” arbitrary. While your point is cogent, I think it is over stated.

  20. The best way to experience the originals would be, of course, in their original formatting. If you have the linguistic skills to do so, then you will have received some training in how to interpret the formatting, too.
    The problem is, how to signal the prose / poetry distinction to readers of English, who already have conventions for such things. If I want a person who speaks only English to understand Psalm 1, I’ll need to translate it into English. If I want him to understand that it’s poetry, I can make it look like poetry looks in English. If I want that poetry to look good, I can give it space on the page — again, the way other poetry is treated.
    The arbitrariness I’m focusing on here isn’t in the difference between how one set of translators chooses to format a passage versus another set. If you compare the wording of the ESV to the NASB, you’ll see differences, and some of them might seem arbitrary, but they reflect the translators’ (presumably informed) choices. A line break imposed by design constraints is quite different. It isn’t based on a consideration of how best to present the text. It’s merely the result of software flowing text into a structure and deciding where to snip the line. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to suggest that a single column setting imposes fewer of these arbitrary breaks on the translators’ work than a double column one. From a design standpoint, it’s more common sense.

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