WNW: One or Two Spaces?
Several weeks ago, while waiting to meet with the family after church, Erin and I started talking about our daughters, who are now great friends. Then she mentioned Word Nerd Wednesday and a possible topic.
I wondered why I hadn't addressed it before:
What's the rule for spaces after a period: one or two?
First the short answer, and then the explanation for the longer answer:
With very few exceptions, use ONE space.
I know that saying so will make a lot of people annoyed with me. Sorry! I know how hard it is to retrain your thumb to not hit the space bar twice.
I learned this the hard way with my first freelance article job. The editor (kindly) asked me to submit my future work with one space so she didn't have to remove the extra spaces for me. I got motivated (hey, money and bylines were on the line!) and quickly trained myself to do one space.
To understand today's rule, we need to understand the old one.
Why we needed two spaces in the past:
If you're 35 or older (raising my hand here), you were likely taught to type on an actual typewriter. That typewriter probably used Courier font.
Courier is one of the rare fonts in which each character takes up exactly the same amount of space, whether it's a lowercase l, an upper case M, or a period. It didn't matter what you typed; the carriage advance the same amount. In all, we got 10 (or maybe 12) characters in every inch. No matter what. That made calculations easy for figuring out how to center titles or tables. (Remember that math? Ugh.)
Back in the Dark Ages of Courier during typewriter-dom, had we typed with one space after a period, sentences would have run together, making text hard to read. We needed a visual cue for sentence breaks.
The solution: Two spaces after a period. Tada! A visual gap between spaces, making the flow of text easy to follow.
Why it changed:
Enter the computer era, with lots and lots of fonts, almost none of which have equal character sizes. Characters take up all kinds of spaces proportional to the letter or punctuation mark. An M is far wider than an I, for example.
With proportional fonts, we no longer needed two spaces; the end of one sentence no longer ran into the beginning of the next, because a space was naturally bigger than a period but smaller than wide letters like W and M.
We got the built-in gap we needed for clarity with one space instead of two.
It goes further than that.
If you stick with two spaces with the modern proportional fonts, the space ends up looking like a massive gap, far bigger than two Courier spaces. Worse, if your writing goes for several lines or paragraphs, you may end up with ugly "rivers" of white space going down the page.
Instead of clarifying your words, two spaces makes the whole look amateurish and unprofessional.
This is especially true if the document is fully justified, which spreads the text out evenly over the line to create an even look on both margins. With that formatting, if you type two spaces after a period, the justification will spread everything out far, including your double space. You'll end up with giant gaps. I've seen some gaps that look like 4 or 5 spaces.
Why you should train your thumb to tap the bar once:
The new rule may not matter so much if you're typing stuff only for yourself. If you prefer two spaces, and no one else will see or care, more power to you. (For my sake, don't fully justify the margins, though.)
But you should work on doing it right if other eyeballs will be looking at your writing. That includes not just professional or aspiring writers, but anyone applying for college or a job or writing a letter to a business or anything where another person's opinion will matter.
It's just like making sure you have no spelling errors. Two spaces doesn't look clean or polished in the 21st century. Most modern fonts simply look better with one space, and two tends to look like a mistake.
What if your thumb won't cooperate?
Thanks to word processing programs, searching for something specific and replacing it with what you really want is a snap. If you cannot get yourself to type one space, or you find yourself slipping from one space to two spaces and back again, don't stress it.
When you're done writing, do a search for two spaces and replace each instance with one space.
You'll look professional and save your sanity!