The elements of typesetting style

I have noticed numerous mistakes that people commonly make in text that is written using computers. Some of these observations are reported here, in no particular order. Please read this file carefully (use a large font on your web browser to be able to read it), get the rules here by-heart, and you will produce better text.

You may like to also look at other guidelines documents.

Spaces with fullstops

Each fullstop is followed by a space (but never preceded by one). Say

          her badly. Then

and not

          her badly.Then


          her badly . Then
Spaces and commas

Same rules for a comma: never put a space before, always put a space after.

The same rules apply for colons: never a space before, always a space after.

Cross-references to Figures, Sections.

Capitalise the common noun in cross-references. I.e., say

          we will return to this issue in Section 4

and not

          we will return to this issue in section 4

The standard common nouns here are Section, Figure and Table. Do not use the word Chart, only MBAs do that.

Every single Figure or Table that is mentioned in the text must be in the document.

Every single Figure or Table that is in the document must be referenced in the text - none should be sitting all by themselves without any links into the text.

Mistakes in figures

When labelling axes, start with a capital letter and do not have a full stop. Do not use abbreviations to the extent humanly possible. All the following are wrong: "non food credit" or "NFC" or "non food credit." or "Non Food Credit" or "Non food credit.". The correct string is: "Non food credit".

When inserting into latex, it's okay to modify either the width or the height when doing includegraphics. But if you modify both, it's likely that you'll muck up the aspect ratio.

Basic understanding of floating objects

Be sure to understand that table is a floating object which places a tabular that's the table. It's silly to use table or figure in a slideshow where you would never want the thing to float.

Rules for floating objects

Be sure to centre the figure or table that's inside the float object.

The floating object (i.e. the table or the figure) must always be placed immediately above the paragraph where it is first referenced. Choose a float placement style -- e.g. [tp] -- and then stick to it consistently through the entire document.

When writing a computer program, you might use all kinds of strange symbols such as GDP.POP.SA. But when the reader sees a table or a figure, all traces of computerese must be completely stripped out. All text visible in a figure or a table must be simple comprehensible English.

Here is a template that's worth using:



        Introductory text. Introductory text. Introductory
        text. Introductory text. Introductory text. Introductory
        text. Introductory text. Introductory text. Introductory
        text. Introductory text.

        Introductory text. Introductory text. Introductory
        text. Introductory text. Introductory text. Introductory
        text. Introductory text. Introductory text.


            Your table goes here.


      Para that references table. Para that references table.  Para
      that references table. Para that references table.  Para that
      references table. Para that references table. These results are
      shown in Table \ref{t:token}. Para that references table. Para
      that references table.  Para that references table. Para that
      references table.

The introductory text should be self-contained, and aim at satisfying the interest of a person who is skimming the paper, ignoring the text, and only reading all the tables and figures. You'll be shocked at the number of people who do that. Be sure to help this person read the table, asif you were standing beside him guiding him to what is going on. If you have special features such as some numbers in boldface, be sure to explain why they are there.

Avoiding excess whitespace.

Be careful about excess spaces. A good typesetter like TeX is smart about ignoring spaces in most contexts, but most GUI systems are stupid about it.


You never put a space after a ( and you never put a space before a ). Hence, say:

          that had never (earlier) taken place

but all these versions are wrong:

          that had never ( earlier) taken place
          that had never (earlier ) taken place
          that had never ( earlier ) taken place
          that had never( earlier)  taken place
          that had never(earlier)  taken place
Choice of bracket signs

Unless very special reasons warrant otherwise, you only use simple brackets (i.e. '(') in flowing text. You never use braces or square brackets.

Errors with mathmode in TeX

TeX users beware: everything you do inside mathmode is done in math font. This leads to many errors. Example: when you say

         $ log(x) $

you're telling TeX there's a variable called $l$, multiplied by a variable called $o$ multiplied by the function $g(x)$. Think how TeX would do $xy$ - he thinks you're multiplying $x$ and $y$.

In this case, the solution is $\log(x)$. Errors of a similar nature that abound are : $2^{nd}$ (TeX thinks the superscript is $n$ multiplied by $d$), $min(a,b)$ (TeX thinks $m$ is multiplied by $i$ is multiplied by $n(a,b)$, etc.

\text{blah} drops out of mathmode and takes care of spaces also properly.

Conversely, do not do things in ordinary font that ought to be in math mode. E.g. say $t$ statistic and $p$ value.

Defining sections, subsections, subsubsections

Be disciplined about sections, subsections, subsubsections. The easiest way to be disciplined is to use LaTeX. Be conscious about each heading that you use. Don't just mark it as boldface italics. Use a numbering scheme, and think about the tree structured organisation of the entire document that you are doing.

LaTeX generates a TOC for you for free. You just have to say \tableofcontents in the main body of the document and you'll get it. Look at it many times and think about how you could organise your document differently. The TOC is the architecture of the document, it requires high-level thought that is different from the detailed text of the document.

Every section/subsection should have a sensible title - think of it as a short slogan that summarises what you are trying in the section/subsection. It should orient the reader about what you are trying to do. A section title "Section 4" is as bad as a book title "Book 4" or a poem titled "Poem 4".

Avoid font and pitch changes!

Avoid font or pitch changes! Pick a very clear, simple style and make the entire document look consistent. Once again, the simplest way to get into this discipline is to use Latex. For example, I often use this style : everything is normal body text (e.g. 11 point), except for enumerated or bulleted lists, which are one point smaller. Once you choose a rule like this, be consistent in how it is applied all through the document. Random switches in font or pitch or interline spacing are disconcerting.

Role of itemized lists

A section, subsection or a subsubsection should always first start off with body text. Then, after that, you can go into itemize/enumerate/description. It's gauche to jump into a list right after the title of the section, subsection of subsubsection.


If a footnote happens inside a sentence, there should be no space between the word and the superscript-number. If a footnote happens at the end of a sentence, then the superscript-number always comes after the fullstop, with no leading space. There is always a space after the superscript-number. Downstairs, in the text of the footnote itself, there is no leading space after the number.

Footnotes should be complete sentences, starting with a capital letter and ending with a fullstop. The footnote should be a readable and complete sentence even if the reader has not just read the text preceding the footnote. Leaving fragments of partial sentences as footnotes is one of the commonest mistakes that even experienced writers make.

In short, always say :

          This is a sentence.\footnote{This is a footnote.}

All these are wrong --

          This is a sentence.\footnote{This is a footnote}
          This is a sentence\footnote{This is a footnote.}.
          This is a sentence.\footnote{ This is a footnote.}
          This is a sentence.\footnote{This is a footnote.}.
          This is a sentence\footnote{This is a footnote}.
          This is a sentence. \footnote{This is a footnote.}

And this is wrong.

Itemized lists require perfect sentences

Many people cut corners on grammar in itemized lists. When you wanted to say:

       \item This life is a test.

all the following are frequently found, and wrong --

       \item This life is a test
       \item this life is a test
       \item This life is test.

The message : Every entry in an itemized list has to be a perfect sentence, starting with a capital letter and ending in a fullstop.

Avoid grandiose capitalisation

Say "Philosphical consequences of partial differential equations" instead of "Philosophical Consequences of Partial Differential Equations". Save up capitalisation for proper nouns only.

In .bib files, this means you have to explicitly capitalise proper nouns and the first word after a colon. As an example:

       title={Ferreting out tunneling: {An} application to {Indian} business groups}
Small caps

When you want to say IMF, you have exactly two choices: you either say I.M.F. (for an unfamiliar and non-standard name) or you say \textsc{imf} -- it is wrong to say IMF.


Say 'Rs.500 million' exactly like you would say '$10 million'. There should be no space before the numeral.

Minus and plus signs

The normal TeX '-' is a hyphen and not a minus sign. Say '$-22.1$' when you want to say -22.1. It's easier to have a policy that plus or minus signs are both encased in dollars.

Font size convention

A good convention is to use normal font for body text, go one stop smaller for enumerated/itemized lists, and go two stops smaller for floating tables.

Be clear on hyphen, endash and emdash.

Hyphens are used to divide words and in compound words (e.g. all-India). Endashes (--) are used between a range of numbers and in dates. Emdashes (---) are used between phrases of a sentence.


The modern style is to avoid double quotes. Use single quotes and backquotes. As an example, say : He believed it was `really important' to get this right.


Do not say

          $(1-r) * (1-p) * V$

when you mean


(it's silly to use '*' when writing mathematics).

"It's" versus "its"

"It's" is slang for "it is". Slang never belongs in technical writing. So the simple rule to remember is: Never say "it's". If you mean "it is", say "it is". If you mean the possessive version, say "its". Examples: It is apparent that where what is required is "it is", or To pursue its own interest.

As a first approximation, a safe rule is: to never use a "'" in professional writing.


Tables are a constant source of poor quality typesetting. Look at good books to see how tables are done. Use Latex simply in order to cultivate discipline in how tables are written. The table should look orderly and regular.

Always drop the font size for a table to footnotesize.

Almost never use vertical lines in a table.

All columns should have column titles. Never use boldface for the column titles.

The column widths must be sensible. Often, a long column title forces a wide column and then that looks ugly. Be careful. Either use a short column title or spread the column titles over multiple lines.

Numeric columns must always be right aligned. In presenting numerical values, choose one style and stick to it. E.g. if you're going to say 1,830 once then don't say 2065 at another place. When there are decimal places, all numbers within one table must have the identical number of decimal places: do not randomly waver on putting different number of places on different numbers.

Do not use notation like 7.34e-4. Typeset this properly using latex. And no matter what you do, do not get away from decimal alignment.

Use a horizontal rule before and after the column titles, and then at the very end. Do not randomly toss horizontal rules.

The entire floating object (the table) must appear immediately before the paragraph where the table is first mentioned in the text. Forward references (mentioning the table before it has appeared) should be avoided.

Do not randomly throw extra lines into the table. The visual formatting of a table must be meticulously done reflecting care and thought.

These column titles are silly:

               Scheme & Net Inflows (Apr-Mar) 2006-07 & Net Inflows (Apr-Mar) 2007-08 

Instead, put "Net inflows" into the title and say:

               Scheme & 2006-07 & 2007-08 
Spellings that suit your locale

If you live in a country which uses British spellings (e.g. finalised and not finalized) then be sure to use British spellings even if this requires persuading your software about what you want to do.

Avoid WikiWords

People who spend too much time around computers tend to make the mistake of lapsing into `WikiWords' -- expressions like MonetaryPolicy. Don't. Instead, say `Monetary Policy', or even better: `monetary policy'.

A lot of this is based on ideas from C. V. Radhakrishnan.

The best typesetting won't compensate for bad writing. Here's some advice from a master.

This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian by Vera Djuraskovic from

Ajay Shah, 2013