Spacing Out

One space, or two?

That seems to be the question of the week, at least in the teapot-sized universe that is the interwebs. Earlier this week, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo posted a rant on whether one should include one space or two after a period ending a sentence. For Manjoo, there’s not much room for debate: “you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.” Period.

Well, not quite “period.” He takes several stabs at proving that one space is better than two, though they are mostly arguments from authority (“because typographers say so”) and taste (“because it looks prettier”), neither of which I find terribly compelling. He does make an interesting point about the difference between monospaced and proportional fonts, but it’s buried under a polemical tone utterly disproportional to the subject matter. Many of the reactions to the article are likewise full of vitriol (check out the comments on Slate, or this nice roundup), and amount to stating “you can have my two spaces when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.”

I’m not interested in arguing which is best. What intrigues me is the vehemence of both Manjoo’s diatribe and the reaction to it. I think what makes this a weirdly hot button issue is that it’s not just about preferences but also about social conventions. Why do we need any spaces at all? Or rather let me answer that question by asking it again: whydoweneedanyspacesatall? It’s a convention that developed over time in order to make written communication more efficient. The period is also a convention. And so is (are) the space(s) after it.

With the space(s) after a period, though, it’s less clear what would actually make text more readable, but that doesn’t prevent people from insisting that their way is better. It’s a bit like the conflict in Gulliver’s Travels over whether a soft-boiled egg ought to be broken on the large end or the small end. Many folks defend their own preference by saying “because that’s what I was taught,” as if that settles the matter, or that being taught one way precludes ever learning how to do it any other way.

Like most people my age, I was taught in school to type two spaces after every period. I continued this practice until well into graduate school, when I began preparing manuscripts for publication in journals that asked for one space instead (the Modern Language Association has a slight preference for one space). At first, I resisted a bit, and would keep typing two spaces as I composed, but then later I would use find-and-replace to change them all to one space. It wasn’t a matter of principle for me, though. It was the fact that my right thumb had developed the habit of pressing down twice after I typed a period. Eventually, my desire to skip an extra step in the writing process overcame my thumb’s stubbornness. So, I conformed my typing practices to whatever would make my life easier. For lots of folks, it probably doesn’t matter, and so they maintain whatever works for them.

I think we all intuit the need to conform to some sort of convention, especially with something so arbitrary-but-social as written communication. We follow these kinds of rules in order to make ourselves understood and to understand others. With the space-after-period issue, though, the convention is in flux. Most of us felt the matter was settled by the time we learned typing in high school, and many won’t change until they have a compelling reason to do so. Misguided rants won’t change anything, since they imply rule-breaking on the part of people who consider themselves linguistic law-abiding citizens.

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3 thoughts on “Spacing Out

  1. It gets worse. The most recent APA style manual has gone back to recommending two spaces “for ease of reading comprehension”, though they provide no empirical evidence for this. Given that just about every modern display system handles its own spacing, kerning, and so on I’d be very surprised if there were any.

    I’m not going to switch again.

    Reply
    • Totally. I’d love to see some empirical evidence one way or another, but I’m guessing it doesn’t exist. Who would fund such a study?

      Also, good point about modern displays. Most of what we read on the web, I think, is formatted with one space, even if the authors type two.

      Reply
  2. Yep. Web browsers strip out extra spaces unless you hard-code them in, and most page layout engines (even the execrable Microsoft Word) make at least some effort to account for such things.

    Reply

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