Word of the day – knothole

The term knothole is used to refer to a block of stacked characters in a text that occurs when you have the same words or phrases repeated several times and the text is laid out in such a way that the words or phrases line up.

This is apparently quite a frequent occurrence in encyclopedias, which tend to have a house style for entries, which leads to quite a lot of repetition, and also in publications that use fairly narrow columns, such as newspapers and magazines.

Here’s an example:

an example of a knothole

Those concerned with page layout are trained to avoid such undesirable alignments of text.

Found via David Crystal’s blog.

This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

4 Responses to Word of the day – knothole

  1. Travis says:

    I clicked the link to the Crystal blog. That was an interesting, if not confusing post about “knotholes’. The premise that alignment should be avoided in texts seemed off track to me. Why would anyone want to abolish clarity and symmetry? On the post, a list of 3 items were arranged one atop the other in the ‘knothole’ manner, so not only names, but dates were easy to read, and it took no effort to compare one with the other. The column effect was also pleasing to the eye. The author suggested moving things around in order to avoid the knotholes. The disarrayed example was typed for the sake of comparison. It was a researcher’s nightmare. All the data appeared the victim of entropy, scrambled pieces of information in need of a chiropractic adjustment. I still don’t understand the argument, unless it has to do with the purists’ ethic. When I had been an art student, occasional teachers would be so focused on the material and ‘the right way’ to use the material, that the concept of art and expression took a back seat. I wonder if the anti-knotholists are coming from the conceptual perspective where a page must only exhibit the uniform gray mass of letters without interior pattern. As an intellectual exercise, I think that’s fine…. for the expression of Gray. But for practical and study purposes, I don’t see how that rationale would serve the reader.

  2. BG says:

    Yeah, when reading these posts I didn’t really see what was so bad about knotholes, especially in an encyclopedia, which, as Travis said, is aiming for clarity, not style. In a newspaper or magazine I guess it could be bad.

  3. P Terry Hunt says:

    The full ‘knothole’ effect doesn’t really come across in ‘display’ text (e.g. headlines, notices, tables), which Simon’s example rather resembles; indeed it may even be desirable in some reference material, as Travis suggests. In ordinary ‘body’ text, however, such as the prose in a printed novel, it leaps out and grabs the attention, disrupting the normal (unconscious) flow of reading.

    A related effect is the ‘river’, more prevalent in ‘justified’ type – where the inter-word spacings are stretched so that all lines are the same fixed width, rather than in ‘unjustified’ type such as these blog comments – where the spaces are fixed and the right-hand margin is ‘ragged’. (Telling someone that their prose is ‘unjustified’ is open to misunderstanding!)

    A ‘river’ occurs when by random chance a series of more than average-width word spaces on adjacent lines align near-vertically, creating a continuous long gap between the darker type: this also distracts the eye.

    Designers, Typesetters, Editors and Proofreaders are trained to choose font designs and sizes and inter-line spacings so as to minimise the instances of ‘rivers’, or to flag them up or eliminate them when they occur. When checking ‘page proofs’ (which show the proposed final appearance of a whole page, as opposed to ‘galley proofs’ which show only continuous text and don’t show where page breaks will occur), an Editor will often juggle with word and line breaks and sometimes amend the wording slightly to remove them, just as David Crystal describes for ‘knotholes’. (Now that nearly all books are set on ‘Desktop Publishing’ programs, the galley-proof stage is nearly extinct.)

    All this mostly applies to printed text, as BG implies. It’s far less important in on-line publications, where the text size, page width, etc, are often controlled by settings on the reader’s software and therefore differ from reader to reader.

    As you may have guessed, I used to be an Editor/proofreader!


  4. renato figueiredo says:

    I think this kind of construction is easier to see in Western European languages, as English, Swedish, French, Portuguese; but for Slavic languages thr construction is more difficult to be seen, because the use of language cases, whcih changes the words by endings. I don’t know if the English construction occurs in Turkic, Fino-Ugric, Asiatic languages.

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