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


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.

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7 Responses to “Burning issue of the day: After a period, one space or two?”

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Manjoo certainly was off topic in his comment, and it annoying when people don’t address the contents of a piece!

    But I suspect that hot typesetting did proportionate typesetting of letter pairs, as you wrote, but not of spaces after periods.

    Manjoo is also quoted at the Atlantic http://tinyurl.com/periodspace with much of the same verbiage as you quoted above. But the following sentence that is omitted in your reference but is included in the Atlantic piece is the clincher for me. “Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period.”

    The fork rule is the general rule, so he wasn’t wrong. Maybe two spaces after a period are allowed if the fish course is first, but not otherwise. He and I must not be as cultured as you are. 🙂

    Microsoft Manual of Style and all other style guides I’ve read say one space after a period. Except, as the man said, in Courier, which is monospace. Editors in the tech writing world are not amused when they see two spaces after a period, and at one company I worked at, searching for “. ” was part of the final preparation for submitted a manual for publication.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Ahhh. But the oyster fork at the far right throws a question mark over the whole thing, doesn’t it?

    For another p.o.v. on this topic: http://bu.tt/ctp

  3. Elena Danielson Says:

    I took a touch typing class in high school. (My son doesn’t know what that is,–anything like keyboarding??) I was taught to use two spaces between sentences, and it became ingrained in my brain. Now when I write on the computer for publication, some poor guy has to go through the text and remove all those extra spaces….

  4. Dick Margulis Says:

    Ah, the typewriter-is-monospaced-so-you-need-a-double-space-for-legibility canard. Alas, this urban legend persists.

    Here’s the deal. During the period when typewriters were first made commercially and salespeople were trying to persuade office managers that this machine could WRITE TYPE and thus save them the cost of sending work out to their local printers, the common practice is commercial typography was to have large gaps after periods—the larger the better, as composition was charged by the em, not by the character or by the word. This was the nadir of the compositor’s craft; it was all about the money. That typesetting as art had sunk so low is what provoked William Morris to take up the cause in 1896, kicking off what became the golden age of typography in the first half of the twentieth century. Major type houses caught the fever soon enough, but small job shops persisted into the 1950s with the older, sloppier style typical of the late nineteenth century.

    In any case, the typewriter companies prepared instructional materials for secretarial schools. And in imitation of the then-current standards of typesetting (the Linotype wasn’t introduced until some years after the invention of the typewriter, by the way), they instructed students to double-space after a stop. Secretarial schools being the hidebound institutions they are (and typing instructors being who they are and secretaries being who they are), the practice has persisted.

    But with the introduction of the Linotype (and under the influence of Morris and his followers), typesetters gave up the double space early. Yes, the Linotype, as with foundry type before it, used proportional spacing of the letters, but that’s a red herring. The spacing between words and between sentences was governed, on the linecasting machines, by space bands, which adjust automatically to flush out the length of a justified line. Because of the way spacebands are made, it’s poor practice to set one next to another in any case. So the sentence space is the same as the word spaces on the same line of type, because that’s the way the machine worked.

    Now we do have the distinction between French spacing and English spacing. In the former, a thin is added, typically, before a semicolon or colon; and there is an extra fixed space (often a one-third em) after a period, semicolon, or colon. But this practice was never widely adopted in English or American shops.

  5. Dick Margulis Says:

    By the way, the image at the upper right is flopped. The type in the composing stick is backwards (right-reading instead of wrong-reading).

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    @Elena — with the search function you can “replace all” for one space instead of two. Sigh. I know, I know, it’s surrendering.

  7. Regurgitation Wednesday: How do you Space? « Happy Typing by Deb Diez Says:

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