How Many Spaces After a Period, Again?

Simple question for you today:  when typing, how many spaces do you put between sentences?

If you’re like me, you said two.  However, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo has a nice rant about the topic, and it’s sure to spark some debate.

Or maybe there’s really not much to debate?

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 thatfaq-in-old-typewriter the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period.

So technically speaking, and as far as the style guides are concerned, one space is the correct method.  So why in the world I did I learn two spaces after a period (and colon)?

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.

Oh.  That explains it.  Back in typing class in 9th grade, we learned on archaic, heavy, industrial typewriters tucked away in the coldest, grayest classroom in my school.  Everything, naturally, was monospaced Courier.  So if you wanted your paper to look halfway readable, you double-spaced after periods and colons.  And you also didn’t get hit by the mean nuns patrolling the aisles.

But even if the modern rule is one space, here’s the problem: at 41 years old, some 27 years into my official typing habits, typing one space after a period is nearly impossible.  I habitually use two spaces.  There.  I just did it again – two times! – after my last two periods.  It’s a muscle memory thing.

The fact is it would take me longer to unlearn the two space rule than it’s worth.  Many modern applications – browsers, etc. – remove extra spaces automatically.  Bad habits are accounted for and quietly censored.

A few times a year, an article like Manjoo’s comes along and preaches the purity and correctness of the one-space rule.  And I get religion.  Then, after trying to type something using only one space between sentences, I find myself going back and removing the extra spaces my highly-trained, mildly spastic thumbs automatically put in.  Then everything starts getting confusing, I get frustrated, and I have to play a quick game of Z-Type before I settle down and admit maybe I can’t unring my two-space bell.

Is it OK to be wrong if you’ve been taught to be wrong by mean Catholic nuns who brandished rulers like swords?

I hope so, because that’s the only excuse I have.  Space space.  Do you get what I’m saying?

(Thx to Jim P. for the link)


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