What Is an Indentation?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

indentation
The first line of each paragraph in this boy's composition is indented. Echo/Getty Images

In a composition, an indentation is a blank space between a margin and the beginning of a line of text.

     The beginning of this paragraph is indented. Standard paragraph indentation is about five spaces or one-quarter to one-half of an inch, depending on which style guide you follow. In online writing, if your software doesn't allow indentation, insert a line space to indicate a new paragraph.

The opposite of first-line indentation is a format called hanging indentation.

In a hanging indent, all the lines of a paragraph or entry are indented except the first line. Examples of this kind of indentation are found in résumés, outlines, bibliographies, glossaries, and indexes.

Indentation and Paragraphing

  • "The whole idea of a paragraph is to make things easier for the reader. You indent at the beginning of a paragraph to signal, 'Hey, Reader! I'm shifting gears now.' All of the ideas in this paragraph are about the same main thing. ... The indent—a nice big indent of at least half an inch—also makes things easier on the reader's eyes." (Gloria Levine, The Princeton Review Roadmap to the Virginia SOL. Random House, 2005)
  • "The most common use of indentation is at the beginning of a paragraph, where the first line is usually indented five spaces. ... Another use of indentation is in outlining, in which each subordinate entry is indented under its major entry. ... A long quotation [that is, a block quotation] may be indented in a manuscript instead of being enclosed in quotation marks. The indentation varies, depending on what documentation style you are following. If you are not following a specific style manual, you may block indent one-half inch or ten spaces from both the right and left margins for reports and other documents." (Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, The Business Writer's Handbook, 7th ed. Macmillan, 2003)
  • "Paragraph structure is part and parcel of the structure of the discourse as a whole; a given [unit of discourse] becomes a paragraph not by virtue of its structure but because the writer elects to indent, his indentation functioning, as does all punctuation, as a gloss upon the overall literary process under way at that point. Paragraphs are not composed; they are discovered. To compose is to create, to indent is to interpret." (Paul Rodgers, Jr., "A Discourse-Centered Rhetoric of the Paragraph." CCC, February 1966)

    Formatting for Dialogue

    •  "Formatting for dialogue involves several steps:
      * Use quotation marks before and after the actual spoken words.
      * Put end punctuation (such as a period) inside the end quotation mark.
      * Indent when a new speaker begins."
      (John Mauk and John Metz, The Composition of Everyday Life: A Guide to Writing, 5th ed. Cengage, 2016)
    •      "Haven't you ever had people coming over and no time to shop? You have to make do with what's in the fridge, Clarice. May I call you Clarice?"
           "Yes. I think I'll just call you—"
           "Dr. Lecter—that seems most appropriate to your age and station," he said.
      (Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs. St. Martin's, 1988)

    The Origin of Paragraph Indentation

    • "Paragraph indention, by the way, arises from that habit of early printers, following the practice of scribes, which consists in leaving a blank space for the insertion of a large initial by the illuminator." (Eric Partridge, You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies. Routledge, 1978)
    • "By the seventeenth century the indent was the standard paragraph break in Western prose. The rise of printing encouraged the use of space to organize texts. A gap in a printed page feels more deliberate than a gap in a manuscript because it is made by a slug of lead rather than a flux in handwriting." (Ellen Lupton and J. Abbot Miller, Design, Writing, Research. Princeton Architectural Press, 1996)