On this page we are going to look at some myths and facts about accessible and usable typography as relevant to APA Style. The main takeaway is this: There do not have to be trade-offs—you can have great, expressive, nuanced typography that also meets or exceeds all regulatory and functional accessibility requirements. To paraphrase David Berman, when we style for the extremes and we do it well, everyone benefits.
Myth 1: Serif fonts are not accessible
It is a common misconception that serif fonts (e.g., Times New Roman) should be avoided because they are hard to read and that sans serif fonts (e.g., Calibri or Arial) are preferred. Historically, sans serif fonts have been preferred for online works and serif fonts for print works; however, modern screen resolutions can typically accommodate either type of font, and people who use assistive technologies can adjust font settings to their preferences.
Research supports the use of various fonts for different contexts. For example, there are studies that demonstrate how serif fonts are actually superior to sans serif in many long texts (Arditi & Cho, 2005; Tinker, 1963). And there are studies that support sans serif typefaces as superior for people living with certain disabilities (such as certain visual challenges and those who learn differently; Russell-Minda et al., 2007).
However, a skilled designer can create an accessible document that uses serif typefaces effectively, and if structured according to best practice standards, that same document can have its machine text presented in other ways for particular users. For example, a person living with severe dyslexia could choose to have the font swapped in real time with a typeface and spacing that works better for them—thus, there are no trade-offs for the typical user, and the typographic tone of voice that the designer intended for the message is retained.
Furthermore, typeface selection is only one part of the typographic solution for creating accessible typography. Designers must also make wise choices about other factors including size, color, justification, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing, character thickness, screen resolution, print readiness, and other audience and media issues.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) set standards for online accessibility. WCAG 2.0 Level AA does not set any rules about typeface or type size. It does not specify which typefaces are better than others. There are effective and ineffective serif fonts, just as there are effective and ineffective sans serif fonts. If everyone were to strictly follow the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) guidelines for typography, all text would be in 12-point Arial black. Fortunately, you have the flexibility to choose from a variety of font types and identify which will best suit your work.
Furthermore, depending on your organization, there may be additional standards you have to follow to be in alignment with brand guidelines. And depending upon your jurisdiction, there may be additional regulations you need to follow (e.g., the European Union’s EN 301 549 calls for compliance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, which includes specifics regarding line and character spacing).
Thus, a variety of typeface choices are permitted in APA Style. Also check with your publisher, instructor, or institution for any requirements regarding fonts. We recommend particular fonts in the Publication Manual because they are legible and widely available and because they include special characters such as math symbols and Greek letters. Other fonts can be used with APA Style provided that they also meet these criteria. Thus, users should be able to find a typographic solution that meets their needs.
Myth 2: All-caps are not accessible
Many people have heard that is never accessible to present wording as all-capital lettering; however, this is another myth. Fear not! You can in fact use all caps in an accessible way.
It is true that presenting text in all caps will slow down all readers, especially those with certain types of visual and/or cognitive impairments. However, making sure you do not break the accessibility of wording by putting it in all caps is actually all about doing something no person reading it will see. Here’s how: Always type words with appropriate capitalization (capitals for the beginning of a sentence and proper nouns, etc., lowercase for other words). Then apply a style or text effect to create the appearance of all caps. Screen-reading devices will then announce the words correctly (as opposed to, e.g., trying to treat them as an initialism or acronym and reading out each word letter by letter). Other assistive technologies or conversions will also work correctly because they have the option to override your style to remove the all-caps style or effect. This puts the power exactly where we want it—in the hands of readers.
In APA Style papers, the running head is the only part of the paper that is written in all-capital letters. The running head appears only in professional papers. If the authors’ manuscript will appear online (e.g., as a preprint in PsyArXiv), authors should use a style or text effect as described here to format the running head in all caps.
Myth 3: Smart quotes are not needed
Using inch marks and foot marks (sometimes also called “straight quotes”) instead of proper left and right quotation marks (both double and single, including apostrophes) makes it harder for assistive technologies to understand your content. Imagine a screen reader announcing “inch” or “foot” rather than announcing the beginning or ending of a quotation.
Everyone deserves proper punctuation. So, in your word-processing program, turn on the option for “smart quotes” to help ensure that you are using the proper mark.
The following examples show the visual difference between straight quotes and proper left and right quotation marks, or smart quotes.
Myth 4: Two spaces after a period are better than one space
When it comes to spaces between words and sentences, we recommend you use single spaces everywhere. This section addresses the benefits of using one space after a period or other punctuation mark at the end of a sentence from an accessibility perspective. (However, please note that if your instructor or institution requests you use two spaces, follow their guidance, because they set the parameters of the assignment.)
First, some history: From Gutenberg’s time to the present day, typesetters did not put two spaces at the ends of sentences. Rather, working from a selection of widths for horizontal spaces, typesetters would carefully put wider spaces at the ends of sentences and other deserving spots. For example, they might use an “em space,” which is approximately the width of a capital “M,” or an “en space,” which is the width of a capital “N.”
Much of the popular confusion around the topic of sentence spacing originates with the arrival of the wildly popular manual office typewriter in 1874. The typewriter had only one button for space. Manual typewriters also had only one monospace Courier font (“monospace” means that every character is the same width). Although the typewriter was a technological and social improvement, typists had far less flexibility to control the size of their spacing and fonts than did typesetters.
So, 100 years later, in 1974, if your Typing 101 teacher told you that you should press the space bar twice on your Underwood typewriter after each period completing a sentence, they were both correct and typographically wise. Because every character on the typewriter was the same width (and with no modern digital typographic kerning afoot), there really was a benefit in having extra space after a period.
Consider this example typed in a monospace font like you would find on a typewriter:
Willa loves improv. Me too!
Notice how much extra space there is before the period in the example. In a monospace font, a period takes up the same amount of space as a “W” (the widest monospace letter). When letters shaped like “v” or “y” or “w” precede the period in a monospace font, the shape of the letter causes a huge gap between the letter and the period. Especially if the next sentence begins with certain letters, the distinctiveness of the extra space after the period (the visual cue that helps us know the sentence is over) when compared to the amount of space preceding the period is compromised. Additionally, on a typewriter, if you didn’t hit the period lever hard enough, the period would be even harder to see because less ink made it to the page.
However, in the 21st century, we are no longer limited by the typewriter. Although we have a ways to go before we all can fully channel the typesetters of old, today’s software allows us to eliminate the need to ever press the space bar twice in a row. Indeed, current word-processing programs include excellent typefaces, automated horizontal character spacing, and automatic kerning pairs, all of which produce more readable documents. Furthermore, readers have the power to customize their experience of your document—everything from zooming to using alternative technologies that can actually restyle the document to their personal preferences. And so, the author no longer needs to add that extra space in an attempt to make the experience easier for the reader. Channel your inner typesetter by pressing the space bar only once after each sentence.
Using two spaces at the end of a sentence looks bad and impedes readability because it increases the incidence of eye fatigue and vertical distraction due to “rivers,” which are vertical lines of bending white space throughout the text that look like a river. Although the most important way to reduce rivers is to left-justify text rather than use full justification, double-spacing at the ends of sentences also increases the probability of rivers running through your document. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which sets global standards for digital accessibility, “Rivers of white space through lines [makes] reading difficult for some users with dyslexia.”
Furthermore, consecutive spaces may be annoying for people using screen readers or other assistive technologies. Depending upon what settings they use, they may have to listen to “space, space” or endure pauses between sentences that are longer than necessary. Or consider a braille printer printing unnecessary extra spaces—because braille spaces take as much as space as any other character, adding extra spaces to a braille document could actually add as much as an entire page to a large braille book. Using one space provides a smoother experience for everyone.
Research on the topic also requires careful interpretation. Johnson et al. (2018) claimed that two spaces were better for initial processing of a text (this study was also discussed at length in a 2018 Washington Post article). However, the effect was small in magnitude and short-lived. Furthermore, the researchers performed the study using a monospace font, Courier New, which is a fixed-width font similar to what is used on a typewriter. They did not test whether the same effects would emerge for proportionally spaced fonts, such as those recommended in the Publication Manual (7th ed.). It is possible that changing to a proportionally spaced font would eliminate or even reverse the effect. As we discussed earlier in this myth, monospace fonts are never a good choice for readability.
For those who argue that people living with developmental reading disorders (DRD), such as dyslexia, want double spaces between sentences, we have stronger solutions. Although double spaces can help reduce the pain that poorly designed typography causes everyone, the problem is broader than that, and the solutions are broader as well.
Typographic issues can be a substantive hurdle (regarding readability, legibility, knowledge uptake, and retention) for people living with DRD.
The overall strategy to perfect inclusivity in every document should be a two-pronged attack. First, create the “designer’s presentation” for the typical visual audience to be excellent for the largest possible group without trade-offs for the mainstream reader, without losing the nuance and character of the tone of the document. Second, allow atypical readers to use technology to customize the presentation (the “user’s presentation”) to suit their needs and preferences. Actually, it’s no surprise that all readers may at times find this flexibility useful: Everyone enjoys being able to rotate or zoom their smartphone while retaining legibility.
The most common controls that readers can adjust on an excellently crafted digital document are typeface, overall letter spacing, overall word spacing, foreground/background colors, and overall page flow/dimensions.
When following both best practices for the tool they are using and global accessibility standards, readers have the power to modify the visual presentation to fit their needs and preferences, which is what accessibility is all about.
Here are some tips for DRD-friendly typographical design without trade-offs.
For the designer’s presentation, choose a typeface, size, and style with excellent properties for all that also connote the tone of voice you seek. These properties help make a great body typeface for all:
- Letter forms that look similar to what people expect for the context (i.e., not decorative)
- Cursive lowercase g (rather than a double-decker one)
- Capital “I” and lowercase “L” look substantially different (this is more typical in a serif typeface than a sans serif typeface—for sans serif look for serifs on the capital “I” and a hook at the bottom of the lowercase “L”)
- Capital “O” and numeral zero look substantially different (a European zero that has a diagonal stroke through is the best if acceptable to your audience)
- Clear distinction among “p,” “q,” “d,” and “b” (even if rotated or flopped/mirrored); this is easier to achieve in a serif typeface than a sans serif typeface
- Larger periods (and perhaps commas and other tiny marks)
- Relatively large ratio of lowercase x-height to capital x-height
- Excellent built-in custom kerning pairs
Users can then choose to override your font choice (including face, size, and style) if they wish. An example of this is Lexend Deca (which is part of the Lexend font family collection that Google recently added to Google Docs).
Typefaces have also been specifically designed for people living with DRD, and dyslexia in particular, but often times these fonts are not ideal for the “typical” user. For some such typefaces, their unconventional appearance may distract (such as the open source Dyslexie typeface). Other such typefaces embrace spacing that can be dysfunctional for the typical user (such as the more extremely spaced typefaces within the Lexend font family, such as Lexend Giga).
Such fonts strive to minimally impede readability for typical users, embracing the properties listed above and potentially going further:
- Sans serif in contexts (such as a journal article) where a serif face would be typical
- Single-decker lowercase “a”
- Exaggerated horizontal spacing (thus designed for people who tend to read letter by letter rather than word by word)
We also suggest the following tips when selecting a layout for any document.
- Select layouts that avoid “rivers” and layouts that avoid variation in spaces between words.
- Use line spacing (aka “leading”) of at least 1.5 times the point size (we recommend double-spacing for APA Style papers).
- Aim for an optimal line length of 40–50 characters per line (with a minimum of 30 characters and a maximum of 70).
- For documents with columns, use substantial intracolumn spacing that matches your leading.
- Left-align text and use a ragged right margin (i.e., don’t center all text or use full justification).
- Use filled bullets rather than open bullets.
- Avoid visual crowding.
Editorial composition tips
Follow plain language and clear language principles, both in the choice of words and in how they are arranged and grouped (e.g., using lists rather than prose like we’ve done here).
Thank you to Bonnie Shaver-Troup, creator of Lexend, for their help with this article.
Myth 5: Serial commas are optional
A serial comma (also known as an Oxford or Harvard comma) is the comma added before the coordinating conjunction (“and” or “or”) in a serial list of three or more items.
It gained the name “Oxford comma” due to its use in the house style for the Oxford University Press. How strongly do the British feel about this comma? Enjoy this recent story from The Guardian when the Royal Mint left out a comma on a commemorative coin: Philip Pullman calls for boycott of Brexit 50p coin over “missing” Oxford comma.
Not everyone calls for the serial comma: APA’s Publication Manual, the MLA Handbook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Elements of Style require it, whereas The Associated Press Stylebook leaves it optional.
Many writers believe that use of a serial comma should be a preference. We disagree: It should be mandatory. Serial commas bring clarity. Don’t think comma clarity can be crucial? Tell that to Rogers Communications, who had likely the most expensive errant comma in Canadian history, costing them $2.13 million dollars.
Accessibility is about clarity and reducing cognitive load for all: The serial comma aids that.
Here’s a famous example of how ambiguous sentences that include “and” can be, by Lynne Truss: “Eats shoots and leaves.”
Now consider a more trivial sentence that lacks a serial comma: “Jiji the cat likes sleeping in the sun, cuddles and treats.”
And here’s the same sentence with the serial comma: “Jiji the cat likes sleeping in the sun, cuddles, and treats.”
Both of the sentences about Jiji are clear. So it is tempting to leave out that serial comma. However, sentences can be ambiguous.
Consider this sentence: “I bought presents for Tasha, my sister, and my father.”
It is unclear whether Tasha is my sister or not because the comma after “my sister” could signify a list of three separate people or an appositive (a renaming) of Tasha clarifying she is my sister.
One way to specify that Tasha and my sister are two separate people is to take out the comma after “sister”: “I bought presents for Tasha, my sister and my father.”
However, this introduces an exception to the guideline to always use serial commas. A better solution is to rewrite the sentence and follow the serial comma guideline.
- If Tasha is not my sister: “I bought presents for my sister, my father, and Tasha.”
- If Tasha is my sister: "I bought presents for my father and my sister, Tasha."
Both sentences are easy to understand and do not require writers to make exceptions to writing style guidelines. Readers do not have to wonder whether the missing comma is a mistake or an intentional way to change meaning. Don’t make your meaning hinge on the presence or absence of a serial comma.
If you use serial commas consistently, your readers can trust that you are among those writers who can be relied upon to include the comma in the ambiguous cases. To make sure people trust that they are understanding your meaning when you leave out a comma, include the serial comma every time you have a serial list of items.
Plain language and clear language experts agree: There is no benefit to leaving out the serial comma. That’s why we recommend using it in your APA Style papers.
Those who prefer optional serial commas can make a counterargument that it is possible to build a rare sentence in which adding the serial comma actually adds ambiguity. And they are correct. However, the way around that is to rewrite those rare sentences. Here’s an example of one those intriguing rare sentences:
- Without serial comma: “I shoot hoops with my son, Lebron James and Sheryl Swoops.”
- With serial comma: “I shoot hoops with my son, Lebron James, and Sheryl Swoops.”
Adding the serial command in this case makes it possible for readers to wrongly think Lebron James is my son (he’s not). Removing the serial comma would fix that. But instead, to retain your consistency throughout the document, rewrite the sentence: “I play basketball with Lebron James, Sheryl Swoops, and my son.”
Using either approach consistently can create cases where the clearest approach is to rewrite the sentence. However, use of the serial comma means you need to rewrite far less often.
So, in summary, here is the complete recipe for succeeding with the serial comma:
- Include the serial comma for a list of three or more items.
- In the rare case that including a serial comma causes your sentence to be less clear, then rewrite the sentence, still using serial commas as necessary in the new sentence, rather than losing the trust of your readers that you will be consistently clear by always using a serial comma when listing items.
In sum, use a serial comma whenever you can.