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People keep claiming that shorter lines are easier to read - especially when discussing user interfaces and fixed width layouts.

I recall a stack overflow question years ago where someone essentially debunked this and had studies to prove that long line lengths were not only not a problem, but actually resulted in faster reading and comprehension, thus supporting his assertion that wide screen monitors and wide editor windows were useful, and that limiting writing to a certain number of characters per line was a waste of time.

Unfortunately I can't find it now, and perhaps there are studies or information that they missed, or has been released since then.

  • Is there an "optimal" line length for reading?
  • Is it true that very short line lengths are faster and/or easier to comprehend than long lines (for instance, in newspaper columns)?
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self test: open up a wall of text story on fanfiction.net and see what layout reads faster: full, 3/4 or 1/2 width –  ratchet freak Aug 6 '11 at 14:19
    
The default formats for LaTeX style are allegedly based on the best reading UI science of the time (it's been a while, though). I seem to recall the claim that 60-65 characters was optimal, but can provide no references. –  dmckee Aug 6 '11 at 14:40
    
@ratchet If I perform that test on myself, am I testing what is inherent in my biology, or am I testing a learned behavior from reading short line lengths for decades? –  Adam Davis Aug 6 '11 at 14:48
    
@dmckee Yes, but keep in mind that LaTeX was meant to produce printed material, on limited size sheets of paper - largely meant to go into books of smaller than 8.5x11 size paper, with larger gutters and margins. I suspect that even if they based line length on various studies, that data was probably combined with more practical concerns, such as paper size, etc. –  Adam Davis Aug 6 '11 at 14:50
    
@Adam Davis: The rationale behind it is that is difficult to track the start of the next line when you reached the end of the current line. I find it hard to believe this has to do with learned behavior, rather than with the biological reach your eyes have/sight has when reading text from a comfortable enough distance to still read the characters clearly. –  fireeyedboy Aug 7 '11 at 0:20
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1 Answer

There have been quite a few studies on this, and in my opinion none of them is conclusive, as they contradict each other.

A group of them suggests shorter line lengths, and another group suggests longer line lengths.

Research has shown that many aspects of physical layout of online text impact reading performance and satisfaction; Dyson (2004) gives an excellent review. One such factor that has been studied is line length, or the number of characters presented per line of text. Research investigating line length for online text has been inconclusive. Several studies found that longer line lengths (80 – 100 cpl) were read faster than short line lengths (Duchnicky and Kolers, 1983; Dyson and Kipping, 1998). Contrary to these findings, other research suggests the use of shorter line lengths. Dyson and Haselgrove (2001) found that 55 characters per line were read faster than either 100 cpl or 25 cpl conditions. Similarly, a line length of 45-60 characters was recommended by Grabinger and Osman-Jouchoux (1996) based on user preferences. Bernard, Fernandez, Hull, and Chaparro (2003) found that adults preferred medium line length (76 cpl) and children preferred shorter line lengths (45 cpl) when compared to 132 characters per line.

The Effects of Line Length on Reading Online News by A. Dawn Shaikh

Other studies:

You might also find interesting:

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Surely there must be a drop-off point after which nobody finds longer lines better.... –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 8 '11 at 11:57
    
It's not because studies seem to contradict each other that they are. This does not mean by any way that there is no conclusion. As far as I am concerned, I read faster long lines when I'm focused on reading and absolutely not tired. If I am a bit distracted or a bit tired, I need the end of the line to come sooner. This is perfectly subjective, but this gives some insights on why the studies gives different results. Furthermore, the quoted study by Dawn Shaikh is based on reading speed. Come on! When you read, you want to understand the text, not to read it as fast as possible! Again, very su –  user7477 Jun 10 '12 at 0:08
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