One space or two?

A recent Bloom County 2015, featuring, from left to right: Milo (a 10-year-old reporter, the politically engaged Milo Bloom), Opus the penguin, and Binkley (Michael Binkley, Milo’s best friend, also 10):

One space or two (after a sentence-final period), a perenially contentious issue.

From Slate on 1/12/11, “Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period”, by Farhad Manjoo. Highlights:

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.*  You’d expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you’d be wrong; every third email I get from readers includes the two-space error. (In editing letters for “Dear Farhad,” my occasional tech-advice column, I’ve removed enough extra spaces to fill my forthcoming volume of melancholy epic poetry, The Emptiness Within.) The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I’ve received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces.

… “Who says two spaces is wrong?” [people] wanted to know.

Typographers, that’s who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences.

… Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left.

There’s more, but in the end Manjoo’s entire argument is an appeal to authority, the authority of typographers, as the professionals designated to lay down the style sheet for typed text.

Yes, he appeals to consistency, and the need for a consistent standard — in everything, but especially in spacing. But then the two-space advocates advocate consistency too (which is why the correspondents Manjoo complains about use two spaces, again and again and again.

He also appeals to readability, but admits that there’s no real experimental evidence for that claim. And anyway, two-space advocates also claim their style is more readable. It probably all comes down to finding what you’re used to more readable than the alternative.

And then he appeals to aesthetics. But then so do two-space advocates. Again, this probably just means that you find what you’re used to more beautiful than the alternative.

Finally, he appeals to tradition: one space is a tradition (roughly century-long) among typographers, enforced in a great many published style sheets. But two spaces is also a tradition of long standing, one enforced in a huge number of classrooms, by teachers who were often entirely willing to penalize students who used only one space, by reducing their grades. (I was subject to this regimen myself.)

5 Responses to “One space or two?”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Monospace fonts (all characters have the same width – such as most typewriters had – and monospace computer fonts like Courier – need two spaces after a period. Proportionally spaced fonts – like the old IBM Executive carbon-ribbon typewriter, or like most computer fonts today – need one space after a period.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Pretty much everybody notes a connection between monospace fonts vs. proportionally spaced fonts and spacing, but I can’t see that in either case you can argue that the font type *needs* a particular spacing.

  2. John Roth Says:

    In typeset text, the space after a period isn’t the same width as the space between words. It’s not only wider, but the conventional width has changed over the centuries since the invention of movable type. The one-space rule simply means that the typesetter will do what he pleases, whether you use one space or two in your manuscript. You can see that in the web: HTML will reduce all sequences of non-printing characters to one space, unless you use a non-breaking space, you use a mono-spaced font or you mark it as computer script.

    Many editors have a macro that changes two spaces after a period to one, and fixes a number of other issues as well, so they don’t have to waste time on it.

  3. chrishansenhome Says:

    When I left theological college in 1978, I got a job as a statistical typist for the Harris Poll in New York. The house style (we all typed on monospaced typewriters–1978 remember) was two spaces after a full stop. We got a lot of flak if we forgot that rule.

    Since I left there in 1984, I’ve graduated to one space and stayed there. I must say that I never got penalised for this in secondary school or college since I am a self-taught touch-typist and have never been graded on it.

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