Archive for January 16th, 2011

Burning issue of the day: After a period, one space or two?

Sunday, January 16th, 2011
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We never know where our random, internal stream of associations will lead us.  I think about where I have misplaced my glasses, and within seconds I might be thinking about an essay by Montaigne.  For Farhad Manjoo over at Slate, the journey is not nearly as interesting:  thoughts about Julian Assange of Wiklieaks fame hitting on a 19-year-old girl brings a long jeremiad against those of us who use double spaces after full stops. Like this.   As he tries to explain, it is  “is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong“:

What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space—but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space “rule.” Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper. When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. “Who says two spaces is wrong?” they wanted to know.

So Manjoo goes into the genealogy versus the 1- versus 2-space rule, which he alleges is based on the old manual Smith-Corona I still have squirreled away in the garage somewhere, which I keep not only for old times sake, but just in case all the computers die forever in some post-Armageddon world, I’ll still be able to pound out my pearly prose, as long as my 30-year-old ribbon lasts.

Here’s Manjoo (you can feel his blood pressure go up as he writes):

“The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks ‘loose’ and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.”

Behold and weep, Manjoo

Ho, I don’t know where he comes from, but ancient moi still remembers working with the last hot-type presses in the 1970s, with their molten-lead typesetting and manually locked pages.  They used proportional typesetting. For The Michigan Daily and The Pontiac Press, I remember the complicated jigsaw puzzle of writing out headlines to fit the columns — each character counted for 1, except for i and j, which counted 1/2, and m’s and w’s, which were 1-1/2.  In a pinch, you might be able to count an r and t as a little less than one.  Even so, we always put two spaces between sentences.  Which shoots Manjoo’s argument all to hell.

But what can you say about a man who claims, “Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork …”

Well, no.  It depends on how the courses are served.  If it’s fish course first, entrée second, and salad course third, then the fork goes closest to the plate, on the right.  Everybody knows that.