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Revision as of 17:59, 4 March 2014

Welcome to the explain xkcd wiki!
We have an explanation for all 1 xkcd comics, and only 12 (1%) are incomplete. Help us finish them!

Latest comic

Go to this comic explanation

Full-Width Justification
Gonna start bugging the Unicode consortium to add snake segment characters that can be combined into an arbitrary-length non-breaking snake.
Title text: Gonna start bugging the Unicode consortium to add snake segment characters that can be combined into an arbitrary-length non-breaking snake.

Explanation

Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: hasty & impatient placeholder. Still an early draft; needs citations, fact-checking, and it also needs the Wikipedia links to be fixed.

The comic refers to an irritating problem in laying out text to fit from margin to margin, the problem of justification, where you want multiple-line text to line up on the left side (common), the right side (less common), or both sides, which is commonly called full justification. This strip is dealing with how to make text fit such that it lines up on both sides while still looking good. Sometimes, as before a long word like "deindustrialization," there's no universal good way to make the typography work. It is a difficult problem to make text look good and be easily legible especially in a narrow space, with the biggest issue being how to handle words that are too long to fit nicely.

The comic shows several solutions to this problem, some realistic and others less so, but each unsatisfying. "Giving up" is ugly, leaving a line break which doesn't fit with the rest. "Letter spacing" looks pretty confusing as people may think it is an acronym. "Hyphenation" is confusing in English because its spelling requires full-word recognition ("deindus-" looks like an independent, unfamiliar word, pronounced "dayn-duss", whereas "trialization" seems like something having to do with trials, whether legal or tests), it requires more work on the reader's end to mentally recombine it into one word, and there are rules to follow on exactly where it is acceptable to split a word; nevertheless, this is the most common way of handling those extreme cases. "Stretching" is unnatural, probably hard to code or render, unfamiliar and quite ugly. Adding "Filler" words, a radical solution, could easily make the writing worse (in the case of the example, making the tone too informal), however it might be reasonable if the filler words are added by a human rather than by an automated process, especially if that human is the same one that wrote the original words. Finally, adding a decorative image like "Snakes" (but not necessarily snakes in particular) to fill the extra space is a justification practice of significant historical interest (it was particularly common for illuminated manuscripts in the medieval era and remained prominent until the invention of the printing press) but little modern relevance.

The title text suggests that in order to facilitate this last method of "solving" the problem, the Unicode Consortium, the organization in charge of the common text standard Unicode, should add "snake-building characters" (similar in concept to the existing Box Drawing block), to allow variable-length snake images to be used as filling. Currently, there are four snake characters in Unicode: [1]

The use of the phrase "non-breaking" in the title text is a play on non-breaking space and implies that an automatic line break could not be inserted after a snake segment; the whole snake would shift down if it were too wide to fit on a given line. This suggestion would likely be rejected; the Unicode consortium is very specific about which characters are added[citation needed], and always require a good reason[citation needed] before adding a character or set of characters to the standard. Strange decisions by the consortium have previously been referenced in 1253: Exoplanet Names, 1513: Code Quality, and 1525: Emojic 8 Ball.

Transcript

[Caption above the panels:]
Strategies for full-width justification
[Below the caption is a column with six boxes, each showing a different "strategy" for justification which is annotated beside it. Here the annotation is written at the top and the text below. The top and bottom of the text is cut of in the middle, but as it can be "read" this is written anyway. Only for hyphenation does an extra word appear at the end. In the last with snakes, a snake is drawn to cover the entire space from the end of between to the right border.]
Giving up
their famous paper
on the relationship
between
deindustrialization
and the growth of
Letter spacing
their famous paper
on the relationship
b  e   t   w   e  e   n
deindustrialization
and the growth of
Hyphenation
their famous paper
on the relationship
between deindus-
trialization and the
growth of ecological
Stretching
their famous paper
on the relationship
between
deindustrialization
and the growth of
Filler
their famous paper
on the relationship
between crap like
deindustrialization
and the growth of
Snakes
their famous paper
on the relationship
between 🐍 [a snake filling the gap]
deindustrialization
and the growth of

Trivia

  • The full text (with alternate changes) reads:
...their famous paper on the relationship between [crap like]/[ 🐍 ] deindustrialization and the growth of [ecological]...
  • An approach not depicted is to treat justification as part of a global typesetting strategy which allows words to move between lines even where this is not locally optimal. This approach is used by TeX.
  • In Arabic, it is common to stretch the lines connecting letters as a relatively elegant and satisfying resolution to this problem. This trick is called "kashida" (كشيدة). There does in fact exist a Unicode character, U+0640: (ـ), to help with this: using it to extend "كشيدة" would result in something like "كشـــــــــــيدة" (which, incidentally, looks a lot like a snake).
  • Jim Chapman, developer of Windows 10 e-reader app Freda, has announced the next version of Freda will incorporate snake-justification.


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Lots of people contribute to make this wiki a success. Many of the recent contributors, listed above, have just joined. You can do it too! Create your account here.

You can read a brief introduction about this wiki at explain xkcd. Feel free to sign up for an account and contribute to the wiki! We need explanations for comics, characters, themes, memes and everything in between. If it is referenced in an xkcd web comic, it should be here.

  • Discussion about various parts of the wiki is going on at the Community portal. Share your 2¢!
  • List of all comics contains a table of most recent xkcd comics and links to the rest, and the corresponding explanations. There are incomplete explanations listed here. Feel free to help out by expanding them!
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