Six reasons to stop typing two spaces after a period

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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:

Page from Life of Pi Page from Marie Claire

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.)

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

36 Comments

You are using your illness and imminent death for good! Crush the extra spaces! Go the guilt trip!

I didn't like the Slate article, quite honestly. And I don't do the two spaces on blogs or any other papers (I did take Grade 9 typing and thus I was used to type 2 spaces after a period). But the only reason why I (if I ever come back to typing two spaces, which I haven't in years) would stop typing the two spaces is because of # 6: Because you asked me to do it.

PS - see? not a single double space after a period in my comment - I'm good at following requests :)

Way back when I got my first job as a junior IT consultant I was assigned to assist a very senior manager in creating the proposal document for a large piece of work. Months passed as we put the document together, then the day before the deadline it was decided that our small team would put in an all-nighter just to make sure everything was perfect.

At about 3am I was horrified to hear what seemed to be the sound of someone's head exploding coming from my bosses office, followed by a lot of banging and stomping as he threw his door open and raced over to confront me in my cubicle.

You see - as a last minute step to add some polish to the document I'd been through and removed every single period double-space and replaced it with a period single-space. And I did it because it (and I) was RIGHT.

Unfortunately, although I did my best to argue for righteousness, he pulled rank on me, and those damn double-spaces ended up going back in (on reflection, I was probably lucky to remain employed!).

Derek - it much pleases me that you're using your time to reduce the amount of savagery in the world... every little bit to make it a more civil place. I raise my glass to you!

I don't know when I switched, but I've been on the one-space train for at least 20 years. It's classy, and has nicer seats.

hi Derek
One space is enough. Tomorrow i will write a geekish script in my filemaker database to eliminate all the double space in my data. I will name it "DereksSpaceEliminator". No joke!

Thank you for standing up for this. When I was in journalism class in 1991, my prof pointed out that the single space was sufficient. When I took publishing in my upper year courses, the profs repeated this. Yet I feel like few outside of journalism and publishing students have ever learned this and I thank you for making this issue clear.

Incidentally, you might be interested that this issue goes back to the days of typesetting and not just typewriting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_spacing

Interesting article, I never noticed the use of single spaces after periods in publications. My instincts tell me the double spaced was not dropped because one is sufficient but because one space would make articles slightly more compact. Meaning, it would save publications just a little bit of $ by doing this.

Looking at it closely, you are correct, it really does not make it look better to have two spaces. For me, it is automatic after 25 years of typing so it will require conscious thought to avoid it. I shall try!

A while ago, my sister, who is a graphic designer, told me about how we are supposed to use just one space after a period and not two like we were taught in high school (my grade 9 typing class (in 1991) was the last one in my high school to actually use typewriters. The next year they had typing class on computers). Since then, I've found myself in a losing battle trying to explain to people that one space is the correct way, including my PhD supervisor, who told the Master's student in the lab to use two spaces. The Master's student was younger than me and learned typing on a computer, so she had always done just one space. Just a few weeks ago, I edited a report for a colleague and took out all the extra spaces at the end of his sentences and he was very confused as to why I did that! Hopefully all this media attention will help me to convince people that I'm not crazy on this issue!

I have been a writer for 55 years since I learned typing in high school, and I will change.In deference to you.Now.

years of APA style guide trump life and death, man. i use one space (and no capitals!) in my emails and blogging and what not. But with capitals, come the two spaces. That just LOOKS more like a professional or academic document.

so, neither one is correct or incorrect all the time. it has to do with your audience.

As another Grade 9 typing student, I faithfully used the two spaces until I discovered the joy of using only one, thanks to a journalist in the office. I really can't squawk too loudly as that one year of typing has paid my way for the past 43 years, despite a decade of higher education. I have found it harder to break the old rules for spaces around parentheses and have resigned myself to confusion. They also used music to give us the beat to hammer away at the old upright manual typewriters and I still have the urge to type in correct rythymn when I hear Grieg's Anitra's Dance. Looking forward to your blog, as always.

In 1984 my typing teacher made sure that we all used period-space-space so everyone that I knew did it that way.

Years later a college friend asked me to proofread his paper and was surprised when I added an additional space to each of his period-spaces, but he didn't argue the point.

That was the only time I ever noticed anyone not 2-spacing after a period until one of my favorite bloggers (ahem) brought up the subject some months ago. It gave me food for thought. I paid attention to the spaces-after-periods in everything that I read for weeks afterward and kept thinking "He was right, there's only one space!"

Today I use one space. I occasionally find myself double-tapping the space bar out of habit but I am improving.

You didn't have to play the cancer card with me on this subject (plain old re-education did the trick) but with a little luck your card play will get the attention of a few more typists. That could be one heck of a legacy.

Buy Bill a drink and thank him for the idea. :)

There's more readable fonts than Courier New and Times New Roman? How would that be determined?

damn the interwebz!

so i guess i should be blamng the litany of teachers i've had and not APA. it has been a while since i did a paper.... maybe i never noticed it on my APA formatter! ha!

i'm older than you but i doubt thats something thats changed in the last 10 years? but i continue to double space it - and be hyper aware of it - allllll day today.

:)

You may or may not have renewed faith in humanity after this then...

http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2544/how-many-spaces-should-come-after-a-period-full-stop

Personally I'm in the one space camp although I argued furiously in the past for 2 because my teachers in elementary school told me that was the rule for some unknown reason.

I can't help reading these comments and being bothered that your "... replied to comment ..." has no visual offset, no nesting. Make the change, write the article today ;-)

First, I want to say that I have just stumbled onto your wonderful website. I started with this post, but then meandered around and enjoyed a few others. (I am saddened to read about your cancer. I may think of you every time I edit my sloppy writing from now on.)

I feel a bit of punctuation fright right now, by the way.

Because after reading some of your posts/essays I realize that my punctuation, spelling and grammar has gotten sloppy. Maybe it always was. (I don’t even know if the sentence I just wrote is proper. I especially don’t know how to punctuate properly within parentheses and I truly thought I did have to capitalize after a colon...but then again I usually avoid colons because they SCARE ME...sort of like the way I don’t like making left turns on greens at intersections and so I will often tend to take alternate routes instead.) Aaaaand now I have lapsed into my usual sloppy way of writing “online”, or at least the way I write on my blog and, apparently, in comments on other people’s blogs. (comma inside the quotations, or outside? I just DON’T KNOW.)

On my blog I felt it was okay to write in a sort of conversational, stream of consciousness way...I wanted it to sound the way it might if you were sitting in front of me having coffee...I didn’t want to be constrained by what I feel is the unnatural flow of formal writing.

But maybe it doesn’t come across that way and I just read...well, stupid.

Certainly reading your prose has helped me to remember what properly punctuated and decently written sentences sound like.

So I’m going to make a change, I think...and I am going to edit my 40 or so existing blog posts. (Not tonight mind you...I’m a little tired so perhaps starting tomorrow...well, first I should perhaps put some effort into the whole finding a job thing, but right after that. :-)

Finally, I realize this post is about double spaces after periods—and of course I’m guilty of that offense also. Like many others, it is a legacy of Ms. McEachern’s grade 9 typing class. It stuck. I’ll try to unstick it.

I wish your cancer would unstick.

Cancer is a douchbag.

p.s. I do realize Ms. McEachern can’t be blamed for the entire population of double space after period users. And, once again, I have no idea if “p.s.” should be punctuated like that. Turn away...turn away...

Any comment on the view that the reason for "two spaces" is to simulate the traditional "en space" used by publishers between sentences? It's similar to the use of '--' rather than '—'.

http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2544/how-many-spaces-should-come-after-a-period-full-stop/2563#2563

My personal reason for using two spaces is that I like the visual representation of the longer pause. To me it makes the difference between the comma and period clearer.

You say:

"typographers long ago established that single spaces work better for proportional type"

How long ago? Because I have a number of books from the mid- to late-19th century, and they all have double spaces.

This belief that single-spacing has always been used in books is unfounded. My guess - not knowing anything about the history of typesetting - is that it was adopted with the development of the Linotype, which was probably able to adjust the spacing much better than hand typesetting.

I was going to inquire whether you include typographers from the early twentieth century and before, many of whom used wider spaces between sentences, among “people whose job it is to know what they’re doing”. Then I noticed that kirkmc had already mentioned this.

So I thought I would advance a reductio ad absurdum argument and ask if you also believe that columnar layouts, page margins, and whitespace between paragraphs are also “an unfortunate bad habit”. After all, if a little extra whitespace between sentences is bad, a lot of extra space between paragraphs must be much worse. Oh? Why not?

Then it occurred to me that I could more usefully raise a question about your fourth point, that HTML does it that way. By default, most browsers render HTML in a serif font (typically Times New Roman), which I believe there is actual research to support as being more readable, yet this blog uses a sans-serif font. I also notice that your post uses straight double quotes rather than the typographically correct curly quotes, for which HTML provides character entities (&ldquo and &rdquo). Likewise, HTML defines character entities for en-spaces (and em-spaces), so it is certainly possible to add them if desired, as I have been doing. Did you notice? Did it interfere with the readability of the text?

But finally I decided it would be most effective to quote the Slate article you refer to: “This readability argument is debatable. Typographers can point to no studies or any other evidence proving that single spaces improve readability. When you press them on it, they tend to cite their aesthetic sensibilities.” Why not just admit that it’s a matter of convention based on personal preference, and acknowledge that different people have different preferences, as they do for the serial comma, punctuation inside or outside of quotes, and British vs. American spelling?

"If I were editing a document from you and you use them consistently, I wouldn't remove them as I do multiple spaces."

That seems like a reasonable position. If you know enough about typography to specify which width of space you intended, then you may keep them. Otherwise, no dice!

One benefit to double spaces at the end of sentences is that they make regular expressions more useful. Using two spaces at the end of a sentence allows the computer to distinguish between the end of a sentence and an abbreviation.

If you don't plan to have your writing processed by a computer, then do what looks best. I notice that in these comments, two spaces in the edit box doesn't change the typography.

This is an example with two spaces. Looks fine to me.

This is an example with one space. Looks the same.

For this behavior, thank a programmer.

You have to be old enough to have learned to type on one of those boat-anchor old manual typewriters to understand the reason behind 2-space: it's to keep keys from jamming, the same reason that we had QWERTY.

There are actually three related 2-space rules: the one you describe after periods (and question marks and exclamation points), the one I just used, after a colon and the extra space between the two-letter postal state abbreviation and zip code: CA 92420.

In each case, you have to imagine the moving pieces. Keys on the keyboard are linked to arms in a semi-circle. When you hit (literally) the key, the arm moves to the center and strikes the platen (the hard rubber cylinder). The platen rode on a carriage and each keystroke moved the carriage slightly to the right. At the end of each arm was an upper and lower character, usually a capital and its lower case letter. To get the upper case, you depressed the shift key, which caused the carriage to rise. Got it? (CR LF have their origin here, too.)

Now, end a sentence with period and space, which you can do pretty quickly, and start a new sentence with a capital A and you may get a condition where one arm is falling back, the carriage is moving to the right and up and another arm is coming up all at the same time. This can lead to key jams, so the fix was to introduce the second space to give the first arm to fall back and the carriage to finish moving right before depressing the shift key to start it moving up and the second key to start the next arm from rising.

It makes more sense kinetically than it does to describe it. The key to being a fast typist on these machines was rhythm and having the feel for which keys were likely to jam when pressed too quickly in sequence.

I'm afraid that this will be with us for a while yet even though it maps not at all to how we type now. It's like we insisted on cranking the non-existent handle projecting from the grill of our cars before driving somewhere.

Wow. I had never even considered that a single space MIGHT be correct. But now that you mention it, why not? It will take my thumb a while to learn, but will come with added benefits.

For instance, my documents will use less memory to store. My email will transmit more quickly. I will be able to fit more words on a page, saving, perhaps, three to five sheets of paper every decade. More significantly, perhaps, I note that on the lovely new, back-lit, wireless keyboard that I got for Christmas that there is already a "wear spot" on the right side of the space bar. I predict approximately a 10% decrease in space bar wear patterns by using a single space.

Sorry can't possibly jump on the bandwagon here, besides I was never one to follow and have always done what I thought was right.

Personally I think the double space does help the readability of the text.  I've noticed over the years that standards are gradually slipping further and further into chaos.  Kids these days can barely speak and their writing consists of jumbled letters called TXT speak.  I've even seen examples of of people ommitting the space after the full stop (yes, that's what we still call it here in England!).  Presumably that's what "everyone else" will be doing next?  This is pure laziness taken to the extreme and I for one won't be going down that road.

Yes, I did add a non-breaking-space character to the end of each sentance!

Wow. You've really given me a lot to think about. I don't remember being this head-spun since I figured out that Nibs were Cherry and *that's* why they taste different than regular Twizzlers.

Yes, you can obviously see that I'm using two spaces. And normally I would be of the "I'm stubborn, no way I'm changing, 2 spaces for lyfe, son!" mindset, but I tell you what: I'll give it a try.

Here we go. Whoa... going to take a lot of effort to undo the reflexive double space-bar tap after a sentence. One. One. One.

Whew... that's exhausting. Hmm. Well played, sir. Well played.

Caleb

"Marge, I can't promise I'll try- but I'll try to try." -Homer Simpson

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