Why 8 1/2 x 11?

by on September 18, 2012 at 7:38 am in Books, History, Web/Tech | Permalink

Most books aren’t printed on 8 1/2 x 11 paper so why are these the standard paper dimensions? Paul Stanley offers an answer:

…we have ended up with paper sizes that were never designed or adapted for printing with 10-12 point proportionally spaced type. They were designed for handwriting (which is usually much bigger) or for typewriters. Typewriters produced 10 or 12 characters per inch: so on (say) 8.5 inch wide paper, with 1 inch margins, you had 6.5 inches of type, giving … around 65 to 78 characters: in other words something pretty close to ideal. But if you type in a standard proportionally spaced font (worse, in Times — which is rather condensed because it was designed to be used in narrow columns) at 12 point, you will get about 90 to 100 characters in the line.

The standard paper dimensions are thus not optimized for reading using printed fonts so typographers try to make adjustments. One adjustment is to abandon the standard paper size which is what books do. Another is to make the margins very wide which is the Latex default.

[Another] answer — which is what most wordprocessors did — was to stick to the standard “document design” (margins of an inch or so) and just use proportionally spaced fonts as if they were typewriter text. This produces very long lines, which are not comfortable to read. But that discomfort can be somewhat alleviated by increasing the space between lines (1.5 or double space), which helps prevent “doubling”, and by avoiding type sizes below about 11 or 12 points (depending very much on the design of the font).

Another possibility is to use the margins for marginalia, which I like. (Stanley points to the Latex tufte class as a way to do this.) One could also a two-column format or just make the text bigger.

Stanley concludes:

These are all potentially valid design choices. I happen to think that the most conventional one (stick with 1 inch margins, and add line spacing to prevent doubling) is probably the worst of them, and that it only seems “right” because we are accustomed to it. And it doesn’t generally save paper, because unless you use single spacing you lose vertically the extra space that you gain horizontally.

We need to fix this problem. Now is the time for a margin revolution.

Hat tip: John Cook at The Endeavour.

RM September 18, 2012 at 7:55 am

I always thought that 8.5 * 11 was a result of somehow wanting to be unBritish. I am of course guessing. I do not even know if A4 preceded 8.5 *11. In any event, I suspect that the American way of wanting to be different should not be discounted as an explanation for by we have 8.5 * 11.

Doc Merlin September 18, 2012 at 10:11 am

Usually, US standards precede the european ones, not vice versa. We don’t try to be different, its europe that does. We just don’t care enough to change to whatever the kids are using at any given time.

Dale September 18, 2012 at 10:29 am

So, metric was the latecomer?

Zachary September 18, 2012 at 11:03 am

Yes.

Norman Pfyster September 18, 2012 at 11:04 am

Later than the English units which form the basis of US measurements, which predate the US for the most part.

Doc Merlin September 18, 2012 at 11:44 am

Correct.

Dale September 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Admittedly, I have not researched this thoroughly, but it appears arguable as to which came first:
http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/origin.html
In terms of standardization, it may make a difference whether we are talking about “official” standards or de facto standards. Why are you so sure that Europe was later than the US? Is it because everything about the US is better than in Europe? Like health care (now I really stepped in it!).

Doc Merlin September 19, 2012 at 8:32 am

1) Quit trolling Dale.
2) Feet, yards, gallons, miles were old by the time that the metric system was invented. I don’t think you realize exactly how old they are. Most of them date back to Roman times.

Andrew' September 18, 2012 at 12:27 pm

“wanting to be unBritish”

Using a wonky paper size and an accent that makes them sound smarter were the best we could come up with?

Gerry Marmion September 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm

I remember reading once that the 8.5 x 11 size came about because, before we relied on paper for writing, people wrote on vellum, a soft, translucent material made from the skin of an animal, often a lamb. The skin was cut to 11 inches, the width of the lamb, by 17 inches, its length. Folding it gives you the 8.5 x 11 size that remains in widespread use.

Jim September 25, 2012 at 2:54 am

What is “paper” …and who uses it?

Slocum September 18, 2012 at 7:57 am

It seems like there’s no possibility of standard (physical) paper sizes changing, but the 8 1/2 x 11 standard has also been carried forward into the digital realm via PDF files. With PDFs, though, ‘saving paper’ is not a concern, so there’s no reason at all not to use larger margins or switch to smaller sized virtual pages (which would print either centered or enlarged on standard letter paper — for the ever dwindling number luddites who feel a need to print).

Tom DiCorcia September 21, 2012 at 6:23 pm

As an American who has lived a considerable portion of his life outside the U.S., I can’t accept that the US will never change to ISO size for physical paper. It is just so bizarre that we have held on so long. But I am always underestimating inertia and a population’s desire fear of global change. I think a good part of Jimmy Carter’s defeat to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s election is that Carter tried to shift the U.S. to the metric system. As soon as Reagan was in office, he stopped metrification efforts, as he pulled the solar panels off the White House. I wonder if Mitt will keep the organic garden?

John Cook September 18, 2012 at 8:01 am

“Now is the time for a margin revolution.” This is the post your blog has been waiting for. :)

Bill September 18, 2012 at 8:15 am

+1 F O N T A S T I C

Professor Farnsworth September 18, 2012 at 9:16 am

An announcement:

Good news everyone, we are launching the Margin Revolution University!

First course? Margin Development of course!

Simple Simplton September 18, 2012 at 11:16 pm

1. Introduction to general theory of margins.
2. Comparative Margin studies.
3. Historical Margin studies
4. Ancient Margin studies
5. Margin as a hidden message
6. Special topic on Margins

Saturos September 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

Be honest, this whole post was just an excuse to use that line, wasn’t it.

Saturos September 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

Btw John, your Twitter accounts are fantastic. Just wanted to tell you that.

John Cook September 19, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Thanks.

Brian September 18, 2012 at 10:40 am

like

Jacob September 18, 2012 at 10:52 am

Be honest, the whole post was just a ruse in order to give you the opportunity to make the pun. I applaud you!

dearieme September 18, 2012 at 8:07 am

I do not even know if A4 preceded 8.5 *11″: A4 was an upheaval when it was introduced (imposed?) in Britain. Our old sizes included “quarto”, “foolscap” and others whose names I cannot remember.

dearieme September 18, 2012 at 8:31 am

Here’s a list of old British paper sizes.
http://baph.org.uk/reference/papersizes.html

dearieme September 18, 2012 at 8:34 am

Here’s a brief intro to the merits of the “A” series.
http://www.1stimp.co.uk/1stimp_tipsandhints/1stimp_papersizes/page4.html

Ray Lopez September 18, 2012 at 9:42 am

“BAPH – British Association of Paper Historians” – barf! You [b] can’t [/b] make this stuff up.

Baphomet September 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Interesting.

Dave September 18, 2012 at 8:35 am

Ha! Well, let the revolution begin with this blog. There are a LOT of letters per line in your current blog format, unless I zoom in to make the font huge.

Jen McGahan September 18, 2012 at 8:39 am

Interestingly, I just wrote a blog post about using printouts to edit articles, rather than doing it within your word processor. http://myteamconnects.com/writing-articles-organization-paper/ The process works because yes, it’s all about the handwriting and note-taking you can do in the margins. I never knew all of this history, though. Thank you, Alex!

Bill Champ September 18, 2012 at 8:39 am

The ISO sizes, of which A4 is an example, have another nice characteristic. When folded in half perpendicular to their long side, they retain their proportion (aspect ratio) and also produce the next ISO size down. That is, A4 becomes A5. The North American paper sizes lack the proportion-maintaining quality.

R Pointer September 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Bill Champ,

It seems that the ratio flips between folds back and forth. But a 17×11 halfed becomes a 8.5×11 and so forth.

Andy September 18, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Is this actually useful?

dearieme September 18, 2012 at 2:15 pm

See my link above: “This feature makes it very simple to adapt one design for several different purposes (for example a postcard, leaflet and poster). “

Dan Cole September 18, 2012 at 8:53 am

Would changing paper-size standards require paper producers to incur substantial fixed costs? If so, then I imagine path dependency might be a deterrent.

Anthony September 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Not paper producers, but paper-users. Some printers come with different notches for 8½ x 11 and A4, but not all. And how many people will successfully convert their existing paper trays? Existing filing systems expect 11-inch or 14-inch paper, but A4 is 11.7 inches long, just enough to exceed the extra space that existing files allow. There’s a very, very large installed base of systems to handle 8½x11 paper which will have trouble with A4. This was less a problem, though perhaps not much less, when the U.S. government gave up on “government-letter” (8 x 10½ inch), because the government-letter papers fit in files designed for 8½ x 11; I don’t know if the government market was big enough to convince commercial stationers to provide files, etc., in slightly reduced sizes.

Becca September 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm

The US government stopped using its 8×10.5″ paper in the 1960s because it actually cost more to make than the standard letter size due to the paper companies having to special cut the government’s paper.
So they finally switched when some in Congress complained of the cost.

Alex Godofsky September 18, 2012 at 9:02 am

Solution: stop using paper and join the rest of us in the 21st century.

Vernunft September 18, 2012 at 11:35 am

Uh, who is not using paper?

Andrew' September 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Computers just made it easier to produce more reams of inane documents. When I worked in a quality department I wanted to invent the document management printer. It was a printer that fed directly into a shredder and recycle bin.

Orange14 September 18, 2012 at 9:03 am

We will adopt ISO paper sizes in the US at about the same time that we adopt the metric system of measurements and dispense with English units.

zbicyclist September 18, 2012 at 9:07 am

“the most conventional one (stick with 1 inch margins, and add line spacing to prevent doubling)”

That’s certainly conventional in academic. Working in industry, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do this.

tgrass September 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm

What is doubling? Google says nothing.

Richard Gadsden September 19, 2012 at 9:20 am

I believe that, in context, it’s rereading the same line when you intended to move your eyes to the next one.

Bill Harshaw September 18, 2012 at 9:12 am

Back in the day, the Federal government standard was 8″ by 10 1/2″ paper. Don’t remember when we switched. I don’t think there were big problems with file cabinets, etc.

Andrew' September 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

This was The Feds’ idea for reducing the margins?

Geoff Olynyk September 18, 2012 at 9:23 am

Edward Tufte’s books are a pleasure to read. You really need to have the real thing in your hands to fully appreciate it – they’re published by his own company, Graphics Press, and use a very heavy weight matte paper, the colour ink is top-notch so the illustrations are vibrant, and in some cases there are things like fold-out geometric primitives (e.g. tetrahedron).

All of that said, the really wide margins, and use of “sidenotes” in the margins in lieu of footnotes, seems pretty wasteful. There’s just so much white space on every page. It is really nice to look at, though.

Mark Thorson September 18, 2012 at 10:08 am

White space is not waste! Text is the vegetables and white space is the candy and ice cream.

Marie September 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm

His classes are pretty fun too. They feel like an old-fashioned revival, but with charts. By the time you get to Napoleon’s retreat from Russia you feel like you’re supposed to be calling out “Amen”.

David C September 18, 2012 at 9:49 am

A4 works for me.

IVV September 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

Increasing characters per line from 70 to 100 makes it more difficult to read? Not for me. I don’t believe that.

Mark Thorson September 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Yes, it does. That’s why newspapers use narrow columns. Wide columns make it hard to find the beginning of the next line, but that can be relieved by increasing the line spacing.

Enrique September 18, 2012 at 11:49 am

Another great post by Alex, but he left out “legal size” paper.

My understanding is that legal size (11 x 14) has mostly vanished. For example, it is not used by the federal courts. But it would be instructive to learn about the history of the rise and fall of legal size paper.

Mark Thorson September 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Legal size is 8 1/2 x 14.

John C. September 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I wish it would vanish completely. For some reason it still seems to be standard for certain real estate-related transactions in the U.S. I refinanced two properties this year and I have now have two unwieldy stacks of oversized documents that I have to cram into my letter-sized filing cabinet.

(I assume you’re referring to 8.5×14-inch paper.)

Enrique September 18, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Yes, my mistake, legal is 8.5 x 14. But why?

Anthony September 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

Because lawyers talk/write too much.

Eric H September 19, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Is it lawyers? I asked our corporate lawyer what the deal was, and she immediately asked me if I was talking real estate. Yes, in fact I was. Then she pointed out that she rarely did anything with paper and was trying to push everyone towards electronic everything, including signatures, at which point she launched into a detailed listing of the international agreements that permit electronic signature.

So I think legal size mostly still exists for the real estate rackets.

Paola Martinez September 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm

at the office we use A4 as a standar. And we agree it´s time for a marginal revolution :)

Dan Weber September 18, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I was arranging books on a shelf when I wondered: how come we don’t have standard book sizes?

You will have books in a series all in the same dimensions, but it seems hard to find more than two unrelated books with the same dimensions. This makes shelf-space really hard to use efficiently, while it’s very easy to arrange media that come in CD- or DVD-sized containers to fill all available space.

Has anyone ever tried to establish a few standard sizes? Does everyone want to be different?

Richard Gadsden September 19, 2012 at 9:53 am

We do have standard sizes for books, there are just multiple standards.

There are three standard sizes for paperbacks: A format, B format and C format. A format is mass-market paperbacks, often found in the mass-market channel (classically, news-stands); B format is perhaps most common for paperback originals in the non-mass-market channel, and C format is usually used for trade paperbacks, as it’s approximately the same sized page as an octavo hardback, and can use the same typography,

Hardbacks are semi-standardised for novels and other linear texts (octavo or quarto). Reference books and anything with significant illustrations can be in a huge variety of sizes – remember that books are usually printed on large sheets and then cut down, so you can make a custom size if you need to.

Eric H September 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

At one point, while researching measurements for imager sensitivity (cameras), I found a paper that described something like 37 different standards. The author then quoted someone as saying, “The great thing about standards is that there are so many from which to choose!”

Andrew' September 18, 2012 at 12:22 pm

It’s amazing when you think about it. At first glance, 47% of the paper is doing nothing at all, but when you look closer close to 90% of the white paper is free riding on the 20% black.

Anthony September 19, 2012 at 10:16 am
Uh September 18, 2012 at 6:44 pm

There’s also the solution of, your know, just using the whole paper sheet with minimal margins

It’s trivial to read text with arbitrarily long lines are: just visually go left on the line you just finished until the beginning, then go one line down.

Alternatively, just use multiple columns if you absolutely want to have short lines.

Joe Smith September 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm

If Times Roman is squeezed in (which is how I find it ) what is a good proportional serif font that looks professional and is highly readable?

Anthony September 19, 2012 at 3:50 am

I’ve used Palatino before, and it looks better than Times Roman. I’m also occasionally using Century Gothic for a nice, rounded sans-serif look which is easy on the eyes.

Harry Lime September 19, 2012 at 9:27 am

I think I know why US paper is 8.5×11″. Having lived in both Europe and the US I always thought that A4 paper looked more pleasing to the eye than Letter. This may be because the ratio of the sides of A4 is equal to the Lichtenberg Ratio, i.e. height:width = sqrt(2):1. People sub-conscously pick up on these kinds of “harmonious” relations, which is why so many paintings have standardized dimensions. I thought maybe another famous ratio from mathmatics might explain the ratio of the sides of Letter-size paper but I could not find any. However, I also noticed that text printed on A4 paper tended to look too narrow, and that many people compensated for this shortcoming by formating documents with larger top and bottom margines than left and right margins, which is ugly. The reason it is ugly is that it violates basic principles of framing (you will notice that most picture frames have equal width on all sides). Applying this idea to Letter-size paper, I discovered that imposing equal 1 inch margins on all sides produces a box of text on the page the ratio of whose sides is (Ta-DA!) sqrt(2):1, i.e. the Lichtenberg Ratio. So even though a blank piece of A4 paper looks more aesthetically pleasing on its own, documents printed on Letter look better, at least to my eyes. This isn’t an argument for keeping letter (I think A4 is more efficient for photocopying, printing,etc.), but I do think it explains its existence.

Anthony September 19, 2012 at 10:31 am

You’d actually get closer to the sqrt(2):1 aspect ratio if you set your side margins to 1.25″ and top margins to 1.0″ for Letter, the way MSWord used to – 7:10 is a little closer to that ratio than is 7.5:10. 7.5:10 is 3:4, though, which is also aesthetically pleasing.

What are the standard margins on A4 in fully metricated countries? A little research seems to come up with 2cm, 2.5cm, or 3cm, but it’s not clear which one, if any, predominate. 2cm margins give an aspect ratio of 0.686:1 (or 1.458:1), which is still closer to sqrt(2):1 than 3:4.

Harry Lime September 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Sorry, I should have said “roughly” sqrt(2):1. Equal 1 inch margins on Letter produces a text box with a long-to-short-side ratio of 1.38:1 rather than 1.41:1, but it’s close enough. For equal margins on A4 the most common choices are 2.5cm or 2cm, which produce long-to-short-side ratios of 1.54:1 and 1.51:1, respectively. With 2.5cm margins the text looks really long and narrow, but with 2cm the page looks overly crowded with text. In practice what you often see is 2.5cm top and bottom and 2cm on the left and right. This results in a ratio of 1.45:1, which is closer to sqrt(2):1 but not quite there. The text looks nicer this way but the unequal borders are unpleasant. (Aside: A4 is 210mm x 297mm. Remember, with 2cm margins you have subtract 40mm from each dimension, i.e. 2cm x 2, to get the dimensions of the text on the page. I think you only subtracted 20mm to get your 1.458:1 aspect ratio.) By the way, A4 is MUCH better for making paper airplanes.

Anthony September 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm

You’re right – I screwed up the math by not doubling the margins. So:

US Letter, 1-inch margins: 1.385
US Letter, old MS word margins:1.5
A4, 20 mm margins: 1.512
A4, 25 mm margins: 1.544
A4, mixed margins: 1.453

The “golden ratio” is 1.618, which seems to not occur with any of these margins. 8½ x 12½ with one-inch margins would get you very close to that, though.

Guy September 20, 2012 at 5:02 am

What are these ‘inches’ of which you speak?

But seriously, what crazy size standard envelopes do you yanks use?

Another benefit to the A series paper sizes is the ability to use a small set of standard envelope sizes.

The margin pun was great. I just wish I could create a pun to envelop my point.

Edward September 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm

This reminds me of the story why the page width in the original Word for Windows (the ancestor of today’s Microsoft Word) was 6 inches, meaning that the left and right margins are 1-1/4 inches. It turns out that in the typical PC monitor of the time, displaying at 640 by 480 pixels, 6 inches was the largest width they could get without scrolling, and remember in those days the default was Normal mode instead of Page mode. (Remember this was 1991 and 386s ruled.) So, sometimes when you see a number like 8.5, it’s origin might be for a completely different reason.

Dart September 20, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Addressing 8.5×11 size only. Not the error of books being 8.5×11 historically.For the last half century (my time in the printing trade) American paper mfgrs made a grade of papers called Writing. The basis size of which was 17×22 and the basis weights of which were 13, 16, 20, & 24 pound paper.The name of the grade Writing gives the very function for which the paper was made originally. Being frugal by nature the printer would cut 2 8.5’s out of 17 and 2 11’s out of 22 yielding 4 letterheads out of the parent sheet 17×22.Thanks for the opportunity to share the joy of that which I have practiced my working life.

Elena September 22, 2012 at 11:07 am

We are using the whole paper sheet with maximun margin at the office Timeshare Consultant Office in order to save trees. Good article.

Elena September 22, 2012 at 11:13 am

Here is the link about our office going green Timeshare Consultant Office Remember that every step that we make it´s the future of our sons. Please care the enviroment.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: