This post was originally published on March 5, 2009 at DeckersMarketing.com, which has been retired.
I raised a bit of a Twitter ruckus this morning, when I posted the following tweet:
# Attention Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: Here in the 21st century, we put 1 space after a period, not 2. That’s a typewriter thing.
It was just a random thought. Nothing sparked it, nothing set it off. I just like to post little pithy commenth every tho often.
I started getting replies from people I had never met, so I ran over to Twitterfallto see what was going on. Apparently, my little off-the-cuff random comment was sparking some serious conversation in Oregon, Texas, Massachusetts, and even England and Australia.
Oopsie. People really like their two spaces after a period. That’s fine. It’s not wrong to do it, it’s just not necessary.
The rule came from our old typing classes, where we were told to use two spaces after a period. Younger people (i.e. punks and whippersnappers who never had to use a real typewriter) learned the two space rule from people who. . . learned to type on typewriters. (I learned from Mr. Carey, Typing 1 teacher, Muncie Central H.S., in 1983.)
According to Wikipedia, this double-spacing is sometimes called English spacing, although since the mid-1990s, it’s been called French spacing. (Insert your own joke about the French, cheese, and surrendering here.)
The reason for the two spaces is because typewriters use a fixed width font. That is, all letters were the same fixed width. The letters ‘i’ and ‘l’ take up the same space as the letter ‘m.’ To set the sentences apart from each other and make them easier to read, we used two spaces. This practice actually hearkens back to the typesetting days, when typesetters had to hand place each character and punctuation mark. They just stuck in a double space and the habit carried forward.
But unless you use Courier on your computer, today’s software programs use a variable width font like Arial and Times New Roman, which means the letter ‘i’ and ‘l’ take up a minimum amount of space, while the ‘m’ uses more. In fact, an ‘l’ is almost one-third the size of an ‘m.’ Take a look:
In addition to this, the computer jams the period in tight against the last letter in a sentence, which creates a little extra space on the other side. If you could measure it, it would be microns of a difference, but the space looks bigger because of how the period is placed against that last letter.
The world is ignoring that second space
If you create websites, you’ll find that html will ignore any space after the first space. (And I know, I know, there’s a whole other controversy about whether it’s website, web site, or even Web site. That’s for a different post.)
Plus, there are some cases, like using Twitter or other micro-blogging services, when every character counts, you don’t want to waste a character on an extra space.
The net result of this variable width is that sentences are easier to read, which means the extra space is not necessary. Again, not wrong, just not necessary. (Okay, maybe a little wrong.)
This issue is not without its passionate controversy.
There were plenty of Twitterers who said I could have their extra space when I pried it from their cold, dead fingers. They learned to type on a typewriter, and are trying to break 30 – 40+ years of habit (it took me two weeks to quit doing it, and I had only been typing for 15 years at the time).
On the other hand, Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent said clients would count spaces in Word documents and send them back for revision if he didn’t use two spaces. Needless to say, he hated these clients.
So who’s wrong, and who’s right? Nobody, although I’m claiming moral superiority in this matter. I salute the traditionalists who want to stick with two spaces after a period. I love tradition and doing things old school (I still listen to radio theater). But I also see the need for ease of use, and eliminating extra keystrokes. And really, that’s what it’s all about.
(I’d be interested to see if someone has ever figure out what the saved spaces translates into for saved disk space.)
So what about you? Are you a single spacer or a double spacer? Why? If you’re a double, would you ever consider switching to single? Why not?
A little more about it from the Chicago Manual of Style:
The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was). But introducing two spaces after the period causes problems: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation); (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences); and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.