Spacing Pitfalls: Why You Should Avoid Center With Latex Figures And Tables

Why Center Causes Problems with LaTeX Figures and Tables

The \center command in LaTeX is commonly used to center figures, tables, and other floats within the text body. However, overusing \center can cause spacing and alignment issues that negatively impact the reading flow and aesthetic quality of LaTeX documents.

Floats and Text Alignment in LaTeX

In LaTeX, figures, tables, algorithms, and other elements that are not strictly part of the text body are known as floats. LaTeX gives users granular control over where floats are positioned relative to the body text using placement specifiers like [h] to indicate "here" or [b] for "bottom." However, because LaTeX aims to prevent unsightly gaps in the text, users cannot always control float placement exactly.

Unaligned floats can create jagged edges along the left or right margins. Additionally, LaTeX prioritizes keeping floats contiguous with body text over precisely adhering to user placement preferences. These behaviors help explain some of the spacing issues caused by overusing \center instead of LaTeX's built-in float alignment tools.

The \center Environment and Its Drawbacks

The \center command or center environment in LaTeX simply centers its contents relative to the current text boundaries. While useful in some cases, exclusively using \center to align floats often produces suboptimal LaTeX spacing and readability.

Floats May Overlap Body Text

Centering floats with \center overrides LaTeX's built-in safeguards against floats overlapping body text. As a result, in narrow columns, a centered oversized table or wide figure can collide with lines of text above and below the float object. This creates difficult-to-read gaps amidst paragraphs.

Figures Can Appear Far from Their First Reference

A second drawback of overusing \center pertains to figure, table, and algorithm placement near in-text references. LaTeX automatically attempts to place floats shortly after their first reference. However, centered floats follow different alignment rules and may drift away from their initial text citation.

This means readers must flick back-and-forth between pages to view a centered figure that LaTeX positioned far from its original callout. Such disjointed reading severely impacts document coherence and quality.

Best Practices for Aligning LaTeX Floats

To avoid suboptimal float spacing from \center overuse, LaTeX offers superior alternatives for precise float alignment without negatively impacting positioning.

Use \centering Within Floats

Rather than applying \center to the float object itself, restrict centering commands only to content inside the figure, table, algorithm, etc. LaTeX offers the \centering command to center elements exclusively within the current float boundaries.

Using \centering after \begin{table}, for example, beautifully centers column headers and data rows without affecting the table's overall placement near its first text reference.

Adjust Float Placement Settings

LaTeX also grants users precise control over float placement behavior. The [H] option disables floating altogether, forcing the object to the exact location marked in the text. Alternatively, add float package options like position=b to send more floats to bottom of page regions.

Likewise, the placeins package offers commands like \FloatBarrier to restrict floats to sections above or below the barrier location. By fine-tuning placements in this manner, LaTeX can render figures and tables exactly where needed without marring readability.

Consider the float Package

As a last resort, loading the specialized float package opens further capabilities for customizing float alignment. For example, style=plaintop instructs LaTeX to avoid top-aligning floats with text for a cleaner appearance. For more difficult cases,features like float hireachy offer new placement behaviors to eradicate spacing quirks.

Example Figure with \centering

Applying lessons from above, the following figure uses \centering for inner alignment without affecting the overall figure positioning:

  \caption{Example image aligned using best practices} 

Unlike the \center command, \centering still allows LaTeX to place the figure close to its first text reference. Meanwhile, the image and caption enjoy automatic center alignment inside the float area without causing margin collisions.

Example Table with \centering

Similarly, centering the contents inside a table float like this:

    Cell 1 & Cell 2 \\ 
    Cell 3 & Cell 4 \\       
  \caption{Example table aligned using best practices}  

Keeps rows neatly centered without affecting the table position near its initial in-text citation. Together, these examples demonstrate the vital best practices for aligning floats with LaTeX's native capabilities before considering more extreme packages or commands.

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