What?! Typewriters Aren’t Responsible for Two-Spacing?

Some people prefer one space after the period at the end of a sentence. Some prefer two. I’m a one-spacer myself.

After I read this Slate article written by Farhad Manjoo strongly supporting one-spacing a few years ago, I posted One Space, Two Spaces…Potato, Potahto? In the piece I noted that the AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, and MLA Style Manual all recommend using one space after terminal punctuation marks. I also explained my understanding of the evolution of spacing conventions:

If you went to high school in the years before typing class morphed into keyboarding, as I did, you were probably taught to use two spaces after a period (while typing on your IBM Selectric).

There was a reason two spaces were preferred for typewritten documents. Typewriters give characters the same amount of space without regard to how skinny or wide they are. In a line of type in which a skinny i takes up as much paper as a wide w, putting an extra space after a period arguably makes it easier to see when one sentence ends and the next one begins. That makes sense for those who are using a typewriter or a monospace typeface like Courier, but that’s a rarity these days.

Suddenly last week, I stumbled upon this two-year-old article, which has been slumbering in my Instapaper account for quite a while. The article, which was written — at least partially — in response to Manjoo’s Slate article, begins:

The topic of spacing after a period (or “full stop” in some parts of the world) has received a lot of attention in recent years.  The vitriol that the single-space camp has toward the double-spacers these days is quite amazing, and typographers have made up an entire fake history to justify their position.

The author then debunks the story that typewriters were responsible for changing the convention from one to two spaces:

Unfortunately, this whole story is a fairy tale, made up by typographers to make themselves feel like they are correct in some absolute way.  The account is riddled with historical fabrication.  Here are some facts:

  • There were earlier standards before the single-space standard, and they involved much wider spaces after sentences.
  • Typewriter practice actually imitated the larger spaces of the time when typewriters first came to be used.  They adopted the practice of proportional fonts into monospace fonts, rather than the other way around.
  • Literally centuries of typesetters and printers believed that a wider space was necessary after a period, particularly in the English-speaking world.  It was the standard since at least the time that William Caslon created the first English typeface in the early 1700s (and part of a tradition that went back further), and it was not seriously questioned among English or American typesetters until the 1920s or so.
  • The “standard” of one space is maybe 60 years old at the most, with some publishers retaining wider spaces as a house style well into the 1950s and even a few in the 1960s.
  • As for the “ugly” white space, the holes after the sentence were said to make it easier to parse sentences.  Earlier printers had advice to deal with the situations where the holes became too numerous or looked bad.
  • The primary reasons for the move to a single uniform space had little to do with a consensus among expert typographers concerning aesthetics.  Instead, the move was driven by publishers who wanted cheaper publications, decreasing expertise in the typesetting profession, and new technology that made it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to conform to the earlier wide-spaced standards.

The gist of the piece (which is captured well in the title, “Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)”) is that people can favor one space or two spaces (or more) after a period, but neither is correct. It’s a matter of preference and aesthetics — and typesetting experts have favored more than one space for the bulk of history.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments, or take my poll (click on the poll to see last three years of polling results).

Image courtesy of Flickr by Marcin Wichary.

In Category: Contract Law Basics and Tips

Receive posts via email

Click Here!
Show 14 Comments
  • D. C. Toedt February 2, 2014, 1:26 pm

    Excellent! I’ve bookmarked this for future use in response to the one-space purists whose rationale boils down to, “Because we say so.” Using two spaces is more reader-friendly because it facilitates skimming. Period.

    • Brian Rogers February 2, 2014, 1:32 pm

      It’s a fascinating article. I can’t believe I let it sit so long before really noticing it in the queue. I’d love to read more in the future on the subject if time permits. (By the way, I’ve never noticed before, but WordPress’s commenting function appears to permit only one space after terminal punctuation.)

  • Ken Adams February 3, 2014, 10:27 am

    Yes, that’s a useful article. Here’s another one in the same vein: http://theworldsgreatestbook.com/how-many-spaces-after-a-period/.

    But I don’t regard these more nuanced views of the subject as reason to shift from using one space. For me, the following, from the post I link to above, is dispositive:

    The style, since about 1960, has been to use a single-space after a period; it’s fair to say this is the work­ing typo­graphic stan­dard. The adop­tion of that stan­dard by major style man­u­als more or less cod­i­fies the single-space into law. And if you have any doubt, check your own book­shelf; you’ll be hard-pressed to find text with double-spaces after periods.

    I find using one space to be simpler and conducive to consistency, and it makes no difference in my reading. But more to the point, the publishing industry uses one space, and that by itself should be a compelling reason to use one space.

    • Beth Shugg February 6, 2015, 1:19 pm

      I agree. It pains my eyes to read copy filled with awkward double spaces. I’ve even seen more than 2 spaces after periods! I don’t think there is an argument out there that will convince me that this antiquated practice is acceptable.

      • Wide Spacer February 22, 2015, 11:21 pm

        The compelling reason is that two spaces encode more information than one. Sentence boundaries can be ambiguous in a variety of circumstances, with various abbreviations, initials, and other situations where periods are used for reasons besides sentence boundaries.

        Two spaces clearly identifies the authors original intent and removes this ambiguity. Perhaps more to the point for your purposes, the computer age means that sentences can be formatted on a per-user preference basis – provided they can be accurately detected. Two spaces between more sentences would give software developers a reason to provide software that formats all sentences with narrower spacing as per your preference. Failing to standardize on this means you’ll always be subject the whims of whoever was writing.

        In other words, if you hate seeing two spaces between sentences, you should insist on a two-space standard so that you can have narrow sentence spacing and I can have wide sentence spacing, all from the same standardized input.

  • Jacqui Murray February 3, 2014, 10:56 am

    If you’re a writer, it’s settled science: Money rules. One space saves publishers money. Since it also saves me time, I’ve changed my ways after decades of being a two-spacer.

  • Vance Koven February 3, 2014, 5:23 pm

    As usual, my inclinations run along the same line as Ken’s. Moreover, there’s always some long-ago precedent that runs contrary to modern usage; so what? In Rome there were no spaces between words or sentences–should we go back to that? If the consensus among typographers for the past 60 years is to use one space, then use one space. It’s not like there’s an underlying fact as to which one can say the consensus is wrong–the consensus *is* the fact.

    When I get a contract that uses period space space, I just globally delete that second space. I don’t even feel the need to use change markings on it. I sometimes save a whole page of a document that way, and all to the better. While I’m at it I also delete extra line breaks (a modest 6-point space after a paragraph is quite ample) and anything else that wastes paper.

    • D. C. Toedt February 3, 2014, 6:28 pm

      > When I get a contract that uses period space space, I just globally delete that second space. I don’t even feel the need to use change markings on it.

      If I were ever to notice that someone had done that to one of my contract drafts, for subsequent versions I’d likely send them locked PDFs — with two spaces — instead of editable Word documents. There are a couple of reasons for this:

      First, and less importantly: It’s irksome when someone thinks their personal taste in document appearance is more important than mine — especially when _my_ taste is self-evidently the right one 🙂

      (I suppose if I had used Calibri font, but they preferred Times New Roman, they’d change that too?)

      Second, and more importantly, I couldn’t be sure they hadn’t changed something else, perhaps something more substantive, likewise without marking it.

      —————

      > I sometimes save a whole page of a document that way, and all to the better.

      That’s impressive. It must be a long document, though, to be able to save a whole page by deleting the second of two spaces after the period.

      ————–

      > While I’m at it I also delete extra line breaks (a modest 6-point space after a paragraph is quite ample) and anything else that wastes paper.

      That’s sensible — but on the other hand it can make sense to go in the direction of using much, much more paper to speed up the review process. Specifically:

      * If I’m given a dense, single-spaced document (usually with a small font) to review, I’ll almost always change the entire document to double- or even triple spacing, and perhaps increase the font size.

      * I’ll even break up long paragraphs by adding hard returns after each sentence.

      * BUT: I also say, in a Word comment bubble at the beginning of the document, something along the lines of, “I took the liberty of changing the line spacing and breaking up the paragraphs to make it easier for me and my client to review the document and to see my Word comment bubbles on the side. We can revert to single-spacing when we’re finished if that’s desired.”

      I’ve never had any counterparty complain about that. Indeed, my clients’ contracts usually get signed that way without restoring the document to single-spacing. My billing rate is high enough, and paper inexpensive (and recyclable) enough, that even if my client were to print out my markup — and they almost never do — they wouldn’t mind spending a few cents more on extra paper to make my on-screen review time more efficient.

  • Wide Spacer February 3, 2014, 7:59 pm

    Hi,

    I run a blog on this very subject. It was very much fueled by my frustration with the Slate article, and with my interest in the heracliteanriver article.

    However in my experience it’s almost universally editors, not typographers, that are trying to eliminate wide sentence spacing. I have a pretty solid idea of why this is, and I discuss it here: http://widespacer.blogspot.com/2014/01/two-spaces-old-typists-habit.html

    As for what I think, I used to remain fairly neutral, until I read a posting by someone named Steve Losh. Basically, two spaces removes the ambiguity you can get with a period, e.g. “Who’s going?” “You and I. Smith also.”

    In software, this is the sentence boundary problem. Two spaces solves it. And there’s lots of great reasons why it’s useful for computers to automatically detect sentence boundaries, including translations and text-to-speech software.

    Even better, if your computer can reliably detect sentences, it can customize the formatting to the reader’s preference, including no additional space.

    So now I believe two spaces are better.

  • Mike February 5, 2014, 9:44 am

    The most persuasive reason that I have heard and observed for using a single space is that double spaces create some really strange looking spacing when full justification is enabled in the word processor. Old habits die hard.

  • Jim Brashear March 13, 2014, 7:49 am

    I find two spaces after a period (full stop) much less bothersome than multiple carriage returns between paragraphs. I didn’t say “paragraph breaks” (^p), I said “carriage returns.” That’s because most Word documents that I see use only the default Normal paragraph style. Their authors seem never to have heard of Body Text.

    I also encounter authors who scatter line breaks (^l) among paragraph breaks (^p) or throughout paragraphs, as if these marks were functionally equivalent to an old-style carriage return on a typewriter. These authors might as well be typing on an IBM Selectric. They apparently have no clue that Microsoft Word automatically creates spacing between paragraphs if one simply applies the appropriate paragraph styles.

    Another common annoyance is tabs (^t) being over-used to indent paragraphs or other text. I’ve even seen authors who, in their struggle to format a hanging first line, put paragraph or line breaks after every line in the paragraph and then indent the succeeding line. Hello! Word has paragraph formats for that! And Tables do a much better job of formatting columns of than do tabs.

    Because there apparently isn’t a compelling reason for law schools to teach the proper use of word processing software, I created a Word macro that cleans up third-party documents by applying my formatting preferences which allow Word to function as an actual word processor. (By the way, my macro removes the second space after the periods.)

    • Brian Rogers March 13, 2014, 2:55 pm

      Good points, Jim. This reminds me of the corporation that required its outside attorneys to take a computer proficiency test. Pretty much everyone failed.

      Firms are also failing lawyers in the training arena.

  • Vance Koven February 24, 2015, 11:04 am

    Thought this exchange on Language Log would amuse the participants here. I haven’t seen this many comments on a LL post in quite while. Coming soon to a contract near you?

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=17869

    • Brian Rogers February 24, 2015, 1:25 pm

      Thanks Vance. Some interesting comments !

Leave a Comment