The Path to Beautiful Tables, Part III: Working With Numbers
In the final installment of this three-part series, we’ll look at the most common form of table content: numbers. Text entries in tables follow most of the same conventions as text in other contexts, although hanging indents are used more often in tables, while first-line (or paragraph) indents are hardly used at all.
But numbers, which have one personality when set in running text, take on another dimension when they appear in tables. They swarm, they threaten, they cloud the page in gray, and it’s your duty as table setter to give them the space and organization needed to let them breathe and to let the reader navigate among them without getting lost in the deep weeds.
Step 1: Use tabs within cells to make alignments easier
Tabs used to be the way tables were set using word processors, but having better table tools doesn’t make tabs obsolete.
Tabs in cells work just the way they do in text frames, so the Tabs ruler is the ticket for creating not only traditional word-processing tabs but also hanging indents for text, and supplemental cell insets in the form of left and right indents. Depending on the table, you may find it easier to create left and right cell indents using the Tabs ruler rather than specifying them in a cell style. In any case, your tab settings can be built into a cell style.
As in text frames, there are four kinds of tabs: flush left, flush right, centered, and character-aligned (usually using a period and called decimal-aligned, used for neatly stacking numbers). As in text frames, in order to push a cell entry into a tabbed alignment, you use the Tab key—actually Option-Tab, because hitting the Tab key alone in a table moves the cursor to the next cell. The crucial exception is a cell formatted with a character-aligned tab; in this case, the content you put in a cell will align immediately according to the tab without the need to press the Tab key.
You can also insert a table into a table cell, but for less complex alignments, tabs work just fine, and working from the Tabs ruler (which by clicking on its magnet icon you pop it into perfect alignment over the cell you’re working on) is often easier than using the Cell Options dialog box.
For example, you can manage left and right cell indents from the Tabs ruler more visually than by manipulating cell insets, as shown in Figure 1. Such indents are simply added onto any insets in effect. Likewise, you can use indents to adjust gutter widths between columns.
You may also find it easier to center headings over columns if you use a centered tab for the heading rather than centering it using the Paragraph palette or Control Panel.
Figure 1: The Tabs ruler can be a table-setter’s best friend. Key features—apart from the tabs themselves—include the indention sliders that allow you to visually align cell entries without having to type discrete cell inset values into a dialog box. Here, dragging the indent slider toward the left quickly aligns an off-center heading.
Step 2: Always use decimal alignment for numbers
It’s tempting to simply set numbers in a column flush right, and this works fine for whole numbers. Until you hit a footnote. Or a “loss” entry that sets in parentheses.
Even in the absence of decimal values or fractions, there’s no reason not to use decimal alignment by default when setting columns of numbers.
With one exception: According to standard copy-editing convention, when the numbers in a column represent different values (as shown in Figure 2) they should not decimal align. Such an alignment would imply a relationship among the numbers that doesn’t exist.
Figure 2: When numeric values in a column reflect he same units (money, for example, or batting averages) they should decimal-align. But that’s not the case in this table, where the numbers represent different things. In such cases, centering them probably works best, as shown here.
The behavior of text set using decimal-aligned tabs is not always intuitive. All whole numbers will align flush-right against a decimal tab, as the program assumes the existence of a decimal point even though it may not be typeset. The decimal point itself does not center on the tab; it sets flush-left against it, and any fractional decimal values set out to its right.
Text set in a cell with a decimal aligned tab will align flush left against the tab. This may seem illogical, but take a look at Figure 3 and you’ll see why this is a blessing in disguise. (1st 2nd 3rd) You can still affect the position of decimal-aligned text with Paragraph commands to center it or set it flush right (it already considers itself to be setting flush left).
Figure 3: Text doesn’t have a decimal place, or does it? Having alphabetic characters align flush-left against a decimal tab allows alignments such as those shown here to happen automatically. The numerals here sit flush-right against the presumed decimal point.
It’s important to make sure your paragraph alignment for decimal-aligned entries in a column is flush-left. Centering the text in a decimal-aligned tab entry will cause it to fall out of alignment.
Non-numeral characters that follow a number will set to the right of the decimal tab, which makes footnote symbols such as asterisks and daggers hang out past the other apparently right-aligning entries in the column. Superior numerals drawn from the font you’re using will also hang in this way, as they’re not seen as numbers per se. But if you create a superior from a full-size numeral, it align to left of the decimal tab, just like any other numeral.
Fractions built out of integers either by hand or by your program will also align to the left of the decimal, because again the program sees them as numerals.
There’s a workaround for this. If you do need to hang a built fraction to the right of otherwise decimal-aligned numerals, add a hair space between the numerals and the built fraction. Then use the hair space in lieu of the decimal point as an alignment standard. Do this by selecting the tab position indicator in the Tabs ruler and pasting a hair space over the existing period in the Align On field.
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