Tabular presentation

Some thoughts on how best to represent information on tables.

Styling

From Publication quality tables in LaTeX:

You will not go far wrong if you remember two simple guidelines at all times:

  1. Never, ever use vertical rules.
  2. Never use double rules.

These guidelines may seem extreme but I have never found a good argument in favour of breaking them. For example, if you feel that the information in the left half of a table is so different from that on the right that it needs to be separated by a vertical line, then you should use two tables instead. Not everyone follows the second guideline: I have worked for a publisher who insisted on a double light rule above a row of totals. But this would not have been my choice.

There are three further guidelines worth mentioning here as they are generally not known outside the circle of professional typesetters and subeditors:

  1. Put the units in the column heading (not in the body of the table).
  2. Always precede a decimal point by a digit; thus 0.1 not just .1.
  3. Do not use ‘ditto’ signs or any other such convention to repeat a previous value. In many circumstances a blank will serve just as well. If it won’t, then repeat the value.

Whether or not you wish to follow the minor niceties, if you use only the following commands in your formal tables your reader will be grateful. I stress that the guidelines are not just to keep the pedantic happy. The principal is that enforced structure of presentation enforces structured thought in the first instance.

Butterick says:

Cell borders are helpful as guides when you’re loading information into the table. They’re less useful once the table is full. The text in the cells will create an implied grid. Cell borders can make the grid cluttered and difficult to read, especially in tables with many small cells.

See also Small Guide to Making Nice Tables.

But what about more complex tables like the timeline of global health? Surely sortability justifies tabulating the information, and having no grid lines would make lookups difficult (both time-consuming and mentally exhausting).

What are we trying to optimize for?

See also Beautiful table samples and Tip on how to make a visually good table.

Function

Having worked on various timeline pages and tables on the English Wikipedia (and beyond), I have developed some ideas about how tabular information should function.

Examples

Here I list some examples of tabular things I have worked with.

Acknowledgments

A conversation with Vipul Naik inspired the creation of this page (though I had been thinking about tables before the conversation).