Yesterday I met my friend Bill for lunch, and as we were ending our visit, he half-jokingly pledged that, after I die, one way he will honour me is to avoid typing two spaces after a period in his writing. I posted that to Twitter and Facebook, and was surprised at how many people report still using two spaces after sentence-ending punctuation, something that is typographically wrong. Coincidentally, the same topic showed up at Slate and at Andrew Sullivan's blog too.
If you're a convinced two-spacer, please pick up any professionally-typeset publication: a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. Here, for instance, are bits from Yann Martel's award-winning novel Life of Pi (left) and an article from this month's Marie Claire magazine:
Look at the end of each sentence: one space after a question mark, period, or other sentence-ending punctuation. No multiple spaces anywhere. So, unless you handle nothing but personal correspondence all day long, chances are that the vast majority of everything you read each day, prepared by people whose job it is to know what they're doing, uses single spaces. And, chances are—even if you use two spaces in your own writing—you've never noticed the difference in publications or thought, "Gee, I wish there was more space after those periods."
I never took typing lessons, and always modeled my typing (I've typed pretty much every day for more than 30 years) on what I saw in print. So when I heard that typing students were compelled to use two spaces, I thought, Why the hell would you do that? And while people who do it have given me all sorts of reasons (beyond, "that's what my typing teacher demanded"), none of them refutes these six reasons why you should only ever use one space:
- The most common explanation for why two spaces were introduced after the end of a sentence is because of the fixed-width characters on typewriters, where they supposedly helped legibility. (I don't personally think so, but it's a reasonable argument.) However, few people today use
fixed (a.k.a. monospaced) fonts:we type with proportional characters on our computers, and typographers long ago established that single spaces work better for proportional type. By the way, I'm typing this in a fixed-width font in my text editor, and I still don't find two spaces necessary or helpful.
- As I've already noted twice, single spaces are what professionals use. You don't always have to follow authority, but the job of a typographer or page designer is to make words as clear, legible, and pleasant to read as possible. None of them use two spaces to do so. There are plenty of circumstances in life where large numbers of people, perhaps the majority, understand and do things the wrong way. Typing two spaces because it's "more professional"—like thinking that the Coriolis effect applies to bathtubs, or avoiding sleeping with a running electric fan because you might die, or writing email messages with lots of different fonts and colours—is a misconception and a mistake.
- Even if you're laying out your own text in a word processor or page design program, single spaces automatically make text flow better on the page. That's because more than one space often creates rivers of whitespace that unconsciously distract your readers, reducing comprehension and slowing down their reading.
- If you're publishing text on a web page—on a blog or wiki, in comments, on Facebook, or elsewhere—web browsers automatically convert any multiple spaces into a single space, according to the HTML standard. There are many reasons for that, both technical and historical, but the end result is that typing two or more spaces is simply wasted effort on the Web, because readers won't even see that you've tried. (Okay, you could take this behaviour as, "yay, I can type the way I want," but that's like never learning to spell because your word processor has a spell checker: you're asking for trouble when the machine isn't there to help.)
- In my long experience as an editor, the simple fact is that in documents from two-spacers, sometimes there are two spaces after a sentence; sometimes there are three or four, or even more; sometimes one. No one who prefers to type two spaces after sentences, it seems, can actually make it happen regularly in real life. Every document I get from them that's more than a paragraph or two long has inconsistent spacing. I don't know if that's because people hold down the space bar too long so it repeats, or sometimes only hit it once instead of twice, or if the extra spaces end up migrating around as writers copy and paste sentences and phrases in their document. It doesn't matter. I've learned that the first step I must take with any manuscript is to search and replace multiple spaces with a single space. The text I receive is always a mess in that respect, and the simplest way to clean it up is to purge multiple spaces, wherever they are.
- I'm asking you to do it. This topic originally arose because Bill thought (correctly) that I'd appreciate his changing how he types spaces more than, say, bringing flowers to my memorial service, or myriad other ways people might pay their respects to me when I die. Better yet, you can make the change now, so I'll appreciate it while I'm still alive! That's right, I'm playing the cancer card and giving you a guilt trip about typing two spaces. If I'm willing to do that, this must be pretty important to me, right?
Since words have been my living and my interest for so long, I have plenty of staunch opinions about other matters of English grammar, style, and punctuation—from different types of dashes to the serial comma, from split infinitives to positioning prepositions. However, in most cases, I simply prefer that you be consistent, even if you choose differently than I would.
For me, typing two spaces after a period is a mistake. It's like smoking: an unfortunate bad habit. While I'm glad it doesn't have such drastic health consequences, it's still a pity so many people learned the practice as kids and continue to follow it when there are many good reasons to stop.