Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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!


Luisa Perkins said...

This was a very hard habit for this 45-year-old to break--and still sometimes, when I really get rolling on a writing groove, I slip back. But I do that global search and replace thing when I finish a document to catch any inadvertent errors. If only all errors were so easy to catch.

Collette said...

So interesting! Just the other day my husband and I were editing our daughter's report and couldn't understand why she wasn't taught to put two spaces between each sentence. Also, you've cleared up why my sentences will automatically capitalize with one space but not with two spaces when I text. I believe I've been dated!! I'm over 35! (and I just went through this comment and removed all of the double spaces after each sentence - now that would have been embarrassing!)

Erin said...

This is the best post I've read on the subject, Annette. I love your tip at the end about search and replace for chronic two spacers like myself. At least FB takes the spaces out for me! I appreciate the typewriter math tidbit as well. How do you know all of this cool evolution of the printed word? Now, to train my thumbs . . . (My ellipses just got self-conscious about its spaces.)

Susan Corpany said...

Thanks for making that so clear, Annette. For years we did it just because "it was the rule." It is always interesting to know the reasoning behind the rule, and it also makes it easier for rulebound people to let go of it if they understand the reason for the change.

It truly isn't that hard to break yourself of this habit, especially compared to giving up peanut butter cookies or to stop procrastinating or give up biting your nails.

Unknown said...

Sigh. All right. I'll conform. But even as I typed this, I had to go back and de-spacify the first three sentences. Sheesh. Just did it again. Before 'sheesh'.

So, my next question is: Should I have put the period before or after that single quote after the word sheesh? Readyyyyy...Go.

Anonymous said...

Good to know.(singlespace)That would be a hard thing for me to change.

My iPhone puts in the period for you if you click twice after a word. But I'll admit that I've never counted to see how many spaces the program leaves at that point. Maybe it is just one.

According to my 10th grader, she is still being trained to put two spaces after a period. I guess we will need to address that before the college application process begins.

Cool post.

Susan Anderson said...

I retrained myself to one space quite a few years ago. It really wasn't that difficult, and it does look MUCH better.


An Ordinary Mom said...

My thumb is older than 35 years so it will be hard to retrain it, but your post is very persuasive. OK. Just did one space twice in a row :)!!

Amanda D said...

I knew the rule had changed on this but it is one that I have been fighting. I didn't learn to type on a typewriter, but I was still taught two spaces. It's going to be a hard habit to break! Thanks for explaining the reasoning, though.


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