Battle Over the Two Spaces

By now you’ve all seen one or another of these posts, which seem to be going viral even though they are actually a few years old. The question raised seems to engender strong reactions and strong opinions, and, being a writerly and grammarly crowd, I’d expect it to be no different with any of you.

Should you use two spaces after a period ending a sentence, or not?

From what I can glean, the question first came up (on the web) in 2009 and was addressed by Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, in her podcast How Many Spaces After a Period? By the way, if you aren’t already familiar with the Grammar Girl series, you should be, as the posts are delightful, informative, and well-presented.

Two years later Farhad Manjoo jumped into the fray with an article in Slate entitled Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever Use Two Spaces After a Period. This is the piece that apparently went viral, having to date been shared on Facebook 673,000 times, another nearly 11,000 times on Twitter, and receiving almost 600 comments on the original publication. It is still receiving comments and being shared today, although the article is approaching four years in age.

Both Fogarty and Manjoo assert that a single space after ending a sentence is correct, and the habit of using two spaces is a short-lived quirk of history that came in with the typewriter and its monospaced fonts. Now that we all use computers, they assert, we should relegate this archaic practice to the dustbin of history, alongside the Olivettis and IBM Selectrics that ushered it in.

I read these articles with a distinct sense of unease, as their assertions about how this all came about and what is actually correct did not gibe at all with how I was taught or my recollection of the whys and wherefores of both practices. Could it be that I’ve been wrong all these years?

Then I was introduced to this long and well-researched piece by “Heraclitus”: Why Two Spaces After a Period Isn’t Wrong (or, The Lies Typographers Tell About History).

Suddenly, all was right with the world again. The horizon was once more level. My memory was not suspect, and I was not slowly (or rapidly) losing my mind.

Well, I might still be losing my mind, so perhaps that is a different question for a different day.

You see, without wishing to date myself too much, I learned to type in high school on a typewriter. In those days the class was actually called Typing (nowadays I believe it’s referred to as Keyboarding). At least it was an electric typewriter; I’m not that ancient! I was indeed, like perhaps many of you, very specifically taught to use two spaces after a period, exclamation point, or question mark at the end of a sentence. Furthermore, I was also taught to use two spaces after a colon, and then to capitalize the first letter of the first word after the colon. Nobody said anything about monospaced fonts. Unless you were a typographer, there really was only one font: Courier. Proportional fonts, like right-margin justification, was something typesetters worried about.

So, I guess I did just date myself. Sigh.

My understanding of the history of the two spaces was that before the age of electric typewriters, periods were chancy things. They might print nice and neat and bold, they might come out small and faint and nearly impossible to see, or they might actually punch right through the page and into the platen, or roller, behind the paper. Thus we were told not to strike the period key too hard on a manual typewriter, which meant they would tend to faintness.

(Electric typewriters were expensive, and heavy, beasts. We may have used them in class, and later in the office, but the device I first owned for myself was decidedly unpowered.)

The point (see what I did there?) was that you couldn’t be too sure that the period would be easily visible and obvious to someone reading quickly, so by adding extra space after the period you provided a definitive visual cue that the sentence had indeed ended and another one, wholly separate, was about to begin. You were aiding the cause of speed reading.

At some point someone would inevitably point out that in newspapers only a single space appeared after a period and before the next sentence. Why would these bastions of language — and typography — commit this cardinal sin?

Because space in newsprint is expensive, my dear, the teacher would reply, and therefore a convention has arisen that it is acceptable in journalism to eliminate the second space. So, now we have one rule for journalism, and another rule for all other writing.

In the early days of my career when I worked as an executive secretary (using a word processor, thank you very much, but I still had to take a typing test on a Selectric to get the job), no one, not once, ever said I was doing it wrong by using two spaces. Business grammar and journalism grammar apparently really were two different things.

Well, that part about the cheapness of news editors may or may not have been true (probably not), but nevertheless Heraclitus had restored order to the world by setting the record straight. Two spaces is correct, and furthermore it has been correct for long ages of history. We could all breathe easy.

Or not. You see, I had noticed some time ago that when I typed my posts in WordPress, sometimes the left margin would not justify properly. I was mystified as to why this was happening, and it gave my posts a decidedly unprofessional look, all sort of raggedy and uneven.

Then it dawned on me. Every time a line was out of alignment with the left margin, it was a new sentence beginning at that margin. Something was up with the way WordPress was inserting line breaks between sentences, and of course what was up was that WordPress was assuming there would be only one space after the period. Therefore, the second space was apparently assumed to be part of the new sentence, and thus the line should begin with that space.

Not at all what I intended.

Some of you old-time bloggers may have a trick up your sleeve to trick WordPress into treating the two spaces correctly (Heraclitus manages to do it on his non-WordPress blog), but otherwise it seems that WordPress indeed forces us to use a single space.

It’s not just WordPress, either. HTML, the “language” upon which much of the World Wide Web depends, eliminates extra spaces between words by design. There are ways to trick HTML code to retain spaces, but the upshot is that a space has a specific purpose in HTML, and having more than one in a row is… wasted space.

It would seem that we double-spacers are losing this battle, or at least we must go to much more extreme efforts if we wish to hold onto our ways. Is it worth it? Indeed, you will of course notice that I am not double-spacing in this post, nor (intentionally) in any of my posts on this blog. I like my left margins to line up, after all. I am even starting to train myself in the habit of using a single space elsewhere, but I admit it is hard. Long decades of habit are working against me on this one. I must very deliberately think about not double-tapping the space bar.

So, what do you do? What are your thoughts on this essential, and burning, question? Do you think a single space is better, or two spaces? Or do you not care?