Adjusting to Single Column, Paragraphed Text Settings

Nathan writes:

Q. I have always used a double column, verse-by-verse format. However, I am strongly considering the Clarion. What are your thoughts about the format for studying? My concern is that the small verse numbers and paragraph format will make it more time-consuming to look up cross references and find individual verses for study.

My response

Great question. You’ll probably experience an adjustment period during which the paragraphed text will feel more awkward, less efficient than what you’re used to. Power through, though, and you may find (as I have) that single column paragraphed text is better across the board. You’ll be studying the text the way you would a book in literature class, and you’ll remember not just where in the column a line appears but how it’s situated in the paragraph. While you’ll still be able to use verse numbers for reference you may find yourself relying more on the words themselves, which I would say is a good thing. I’ve tried to adopt a more Book of Hebrews/patristic approach when referencing texts in sermons, and this format helps — essentially, it’s the best of both worlds.

Verse-by-verse really has only one advantage I’m aware of, and that’s shaving seconds off when you’re hunting for a numbered verse. The question is whether this is such a needful thing after all. There was a time when I could see the point, but I can’t anymore. Using a single column paragraphed text may take adjustment, but afterward you’ll wonder why anyone would have the text any other way. At least that’s how it’s worked for me.

Further thoughts

Readers can adapt to just about any quirk in formatting. Just look at self-published e-books. The formatting is all of the place, painful to look at if you have designer’s eyes, and yet many readers don’t notice, and those who do simply adapt. While I believe verse-by-verse layouts make reading more difficult, the effect is subtle. What I worry about more is the psychological impact of atomizing the text in this way — i.e., do the divisions and numbers influence us to see the words differently than we do undivided, free-flowing text?

But if you’re used to the dictionary-style formatting, if that’s what you’ve come to expect the Bible to look like, then formatting the Bible like a book meant for reading can throw you. I’ve known people who, despite liking the idea of single column, paragraphed Bibles in theory, revert back to the dictionary style because that’s what they’re comfortable with. The easier format is actually harder on them, because of the accommodation their brains have already made to deciphering the format they’re used to.

Something similar happens when the brain is used to hearing a familiar translation. A different one is quoted, and even if it better represents the meaning of the original, even if it is a more fluent rendering, you think: “That doesn’t sound like the Bible to me.” This experience of defamiliarization is good for us, I think, because we’re forced to look at the familiar through fresh eyes, to appreciate once more the underlying original. But the fact is, while most of us adjust after a short acclimation, some never do.

Personally, I wouldn’t dream of using a double column, verse-by-verse layout now that I no longer have to. None of the supposed advantages are real, apart from the marginally increased speed in locating numbered verses. That wasn’t a big concern for the Bible’s original readers, and the more I try to value what they valued over what’s come to be seen as important today, the less I worry about “wasting” time re-reading sentences or paragraphs in search of a particular phrase. The less dependent you are on the verse numbers, the more familiar you have to be with the text.

30 Comments on “Adjusting to Single Column, Paragraphed Text Settings

  1. Excellent post. This came at just the right time for me because I am considering returning my Clarion in favor of a Pitt Minion. While I am definitely in favor of paragraph over verse-by-verse, I was considering switching to the double column Pitt for increased portability.

    I’m curious if you still use your Pitt Minion now that you’ve fully converted to single column?


    • Occasionally, yes, if it happens to be handy. Paragraphing goes a long way, and with smaller type in proportion to page size, two columns makes sense. Still, it feels a little bit like having to work on a PC after using a Mac for years — especially in the poetry sections, which two column settings mangle.

    • Nathan, for what it’s worth, I have a Pitt Minion. It’s a decent Bible, readable for it’s size. I like to carry it to church. But I like my wife’s Clarion much better. It’s a better Bible to read. I’m going to get one for myself. The Clarion is still a small enough Bible for portability. If you can afford it, consider both. But if I could only have one, it would be the Clarion.

  2. I’ve been using a single column, cross reference free edition, for a bit of time now. I find the cleaner layout quite useful for study. Even the lack of cross references keeps me focused on the text in front of me, rather than distracting my attention to other places.

  3. “In a short time you will persuade me to become a single-column paragraph convert.”
    Or something like that. #;-)

  4. 1. I haven’t used a verse-by-verse formatted Bible in over a decade.
    2. When I look at one now it seems very awkward and unnatural.
    3. However, it’s only been recently that I’ve begun to switch to single column formats.

    Single column really shines
    in poetry.
    I used a Crossway ESV
    Classic Reference Bible for
    a long time,
    but I only recently noticed
    the deficiencies in the poetry
    Because of the narrow columns,
    many lines have the last
    word indented to the next
    leaving many lines with just one
    In some columns it seemed as
    though every other line was just
    one word.
    For years I thought that was
    but now I can’t stand it.

  5. I would be interested in a single-column, paragraphed, Bible. But the Clarion is 9 pt. type, and let’s just say my eyes are pretty much in need of something much larger.

    Can you recommend a single-column, paragraphed, Bible that has a larger typeface? Preferabley ESV…


      • Hello JMB… I will look into it. My eyes are fairly mixed up, though. I had an exciting medical event a few years ago that makes it hard for me to read. Bigger is better, in this situation 🙂

        I am intrigued by the notion of a single column text, though. I am more of a “reader” of the Bible most of the time. I’ve got Bibles for study and references, both print and on my computer (where I can amp up the font size as much as I want), but these days I mostly like to read and think…

  6. Steve – There is something about the clarion that makes the text seem a lot larger than the 9pt type, you might be surprised at how well it reads.

    • Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for your input. I wish there was a local dealer I could go to and look at these things. I am willing to spend some money on a quality Bible, but one would like to check it out in person first. At least this one would!

  7. Since we are on the Clarion, do you know whether the second edition/printing is out yet for the ESV Clarion? If so, did they fix the page curling or the sometimes off-kilter line matching? Thanks!

  8. True about the adjusting to the clarion (or single column for that matter). When I got mine earlier this year there was a bit of newness to adjust to. But once you do it takes a bit of adjusting to read my pitt minion again. Single column truly is a better reading experience especially in poetry as michael aptly showed us above. Although the pitt minion is better for grabbing and going so I do read both.

    One question. I’ve ordered a copy of the Allan new classic readers and I was thinking to myself. Wouldn’t it be great to have a single column but in the new classic readers size? But as I was reading the clarion this morning I noticed that it is a nice proportion. The text column really isn’t too wide and i can go from the end of one line to the beginning of the next without losing my place. It wouldn’t necessarily work that way with a much bigger page like the allan NCR with the same font size.

    I guess one could increase the font as the page gets bigger but are there proportion limits of line length and fonts in single column editions?

    I guess the answer might be personal preference…. but is there some scientific thing that bible/book designers go by? Like saying, “nope, the page line is too long here, people will get lost from one line to the next? I ask this just thinking that it might be nice to have a large single column some day…but would it work without huge grandma lectern bible font?

    • Adam, I remember reading somewhere that Cambridge did attempt to find the ideal line length for the Clarion. I think the lines are 60-some-odd characters long.

    • I’ve written about this in more depth on the blog, but in a nutshell, the size of the page, the width of the column, and the size of the type all need to be in proportion. One of the weaknesses of some earlier attempts at single column settings was that they simply switched from two columns to one, with the same page size and column footprint (not width, obviously) as before, resulting in the same tiny type stretched twice the distance — less readable than before, not more.

      As long as you increase the type size and column width in proportion to the increased page size, there’s no problem. I believe we will see both larger and smaller format single columns once the demand increases. For now we are fortunate to have as many choices as we do.

  9. Adam, check out Mark’s blog entry titled, Cambridge Clarion KJV in Black Goatskin. The designer’s of the Clarion edition said that a line should not run longer than 65 characters. Also, the spacing between the lines makes it read much larger than it is in reality. It is a great post. It certainly gets me fired up for the Cambridge Clarion!

    • Thanks nathan for the link…i’ll read it. I would recommend purchasing it. I have the black highland goatskin edition and the whole bible just kind of melts in your hand. Very limp and nice to read.

  10. I guess one might have to deal with a grandma font with a larger edition single columns then to maintain that golden ratio… 🙂

    I guess that makes sense.

    One ability of a multiple column bible is that it can maintain smaller font in larger editions by essentially maintaining narrower columns. I saw someone in my small group with a wide bible who had a triple column…never saw that until recently. Although I wouldn’t want to read it though…

  11. I’m using the Heritage ESV for now and waiting for Cambridge to fix the line matching issues in the next printing hopefully. I can’t compare the two but I believe the columns in the Clarion are slightly narrower which if I remember correctly made it read a little easier.

  12. I think my ideal single column layout would be something with closer to 10 pt type on a page size similar to the ESV Classic Reference with cross references on the bottom of page as with the Quentel NASB soon to be released.

  13. I love the single column format but am still having a hard time finding one with which I am completely satisfied. I own a Cambridge Clarion and a Crossway Legacy. I have had the Clarion for almost a year, and I continue to be disappointed by the way the text rolls into the gutter. Either giving the center margin another 1/4 inch or putting the references on the inside margin instead of the outside would make it more readable.

    The pages on the Legacy are beautifully proportioned, and the font is very readable, but I miss cross references. I have looked at the Crossway New Personal Size Reference in stores; but, even though they increased the font size in the NEW PSR from 7.4 point to 8 point, it is still too small for my 50-year-old eyes to read unless the lighting is ideal.

    I guess my ideal Bible would be a Crossway Legacy or Heritage with center margin references, printed by Jongbloed and bound by Allan. (Sigh) I hope perhaps Lane Dennis reads this blog.

  14. Just to add a bit of perspective, the Clarion is overrated, in my opinion. I would say ‘single column’ is overrated, but that would be unfair since the Clarion is the only one I’ve tried.

    Not only are the pages too transparent in the Clarion, but the text is too light. I also found the longer sentences more tiresome to read and made me more likely to scan the sentences like I would with a novel. But, the Bible is not a novel.

    While I do think it would help rectify the disjointed understanding some have when interpreting texts, one doesn’t need a single column Bible to make sure they are interpreting in context.

  15. You are missing out on the Lockman In Touch bible if you think a dual column, VBV text setting has nothing to offer.

    What a gem!

  16. I got a NKJV Clarion Bible for Christmas based on your general praise of the Clarion. It is as good as you describe. The text is very dark and easy to read. I started reading in Genesis and am now in Joshua. This has been the best Bible reading experience of my life. Thanks for the recommendation!

  17. I really liked the ‘idea’ that Mark presents on paragraph format so my next expensive Bible purchase was paragraph format. When it showed up I was in awe; it was gorgeous. But the more I used it the more my eyes went buggy trying to find verses buried in the paragraphs. I get completely lost in the paragraph in a single column format, even for personal reading. Two column format is not as bad for reading but I simply cannot teach from a paragraph format, it is just too difficult to find the passages. It works well in theory, just not in practice.

    • Do you have the same difficulty teaching from other books, Brett? Remember the verses aren’t “buried” in paragraphs, they started off as sentences in paragraphs and were only later broken out separately. Single column settings work well in theory and practice, which is why the vast majority of books meant for reading use them. Once we’ve developed a habit, though, it can be hard to break. My advice is always to stick with it, though. Once you adjust, it’s hard to imagine going back.

      • Yes, I understand that there are built in habits, and I am sure that has some effect on me. But there is an actual (vs. perceived) lessening of functionality. And I think it is because of the different way the Bible is used for teaching (and reading) than other books. In my limited experience there are no other books I have taught from that I refer constantly to other passages like the Bible. So I am constantly flipping pages and locating passages. It is not that I cannot find them in the paragraph; it just takes longer and throws off my rhythm.

        I also read the Bible out loud to my children once through every year and I often get lost trying to find the beginning of the new line going back from the end of the page.

        Both of these things are exasperated by the decreasing vision of my aging eyes. Verse format doesn’t jumble so many words on a page and double column format helps even more. Now if I only look at the aesthetic appeal I would much rather look at a single column format. But it is just not as functional.

        Now I am still convinced that we need to promote paragraph format for the sake of context alone. I just don’t think I can teach from a paragraph format Bible and cannot read out loud from a single column format Bible.

        Thank you for your Blog, awesome info; I have found it very helpful.

  18. Hi Mark! Long-time reader here. Random question! What don’t is being used for this website? I would love to find it and use it in a forthcoming document. Thanks so much!

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