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.