To Space or Not to Space

two_spaces_badMy friend Robb Forman Dew, who won the National Book Award for her first novel, Dale Loves Sophie to Death, recently received more than 50 comments on her Facebook post:

I’m weary of the sudden and peculiar crowing about not being so old that you would be ignorant enough to double space after a marking the end of a sentence with a period. And now people are complaining about “double periods.” If you’ve been composing prose since the moment you could hold a crayon, and then you used a pencil to print by hand, then a pen to write in cursive, graduated to a non-electric typewriter, then an IBM Selectric, and finally your first Mac, that double space after a sentence is part of how you translate an idea from the sense of it in your head to its place on a crisp, white page of paper. And you’re lucky to have absorbed that nuance of intention. Be VERY glad you’re over forty!

The double-space issue has been around for a long time; hence my surprise at the number of comments on Robb’s post. A 1990 guide to processing electronic manuscripts notes, “Typewriter-style output uses two spaces after periods; typesetting never uses two. Typewriter- style output uses two carriage-returns between paragraphs, typeset output only one.” The reason for the change, as most who underwent it understand, was the introduction of proportional spacing in computer fonts, versus the monospacing to which we were all accustomed when we used, say, Courier for our typewriters or early word processors. Radio Shack’s Rainbow magazine, published in the late 1980s for Tandy users, advertised its punctuation checker, which would automatically look for errors in spacing after end punctuation—though the online version of the journal seems to leave two spaces.

What’s odd, to me, are the equal parts of venom and defensiveness about the double-spacing practice.  Farhad Manjoo’s article in Slate, “Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever Use Two Spaces After a Period,” generated so many comments that the magazine reran it three times, until the comments became tirades not only against Manjoo’s insistence on single spacing but also against the reprinting of the article.  Perhaps the most revealing opinion on the debate comes from Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent “The Price of Snark,” in her blog on pedagogy, where she cops to having been offensive in a prior post on “Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces After a Period!”  She writes:

I thought my headline and graphic were funny. Yep. And judging by Facebook shares, a few thousand other people did, too. Only now do I understand that that kind of funny only amuses those who are in on the joke. To the butts of the joke, that kind of funny is just mean.

For most of us who transitioned from typewriters to computers, the change has come gradually. Before sending my book manuscripts off in the early 2000s, I did a global search-and-replace of “. ″ for “.  ” — and that worked just fine to accommodate my publisher’s typesetting process. (Yes, I realize you may need to repeat the process for question marks and exclamation points, and it requires a bit more finesse to adjust spacing following a quote mark that may or may not end the sentence. Still, it’s not the most onerous task in manuscript preparation.)

Sometime in those years, though, I stopped typing both spaces, much the way I learned to stop using tabs to begin paragraphs when I could style them to indent the first line. Some people have not changed their practice, either because they’re not amenable to change or because they prefer the two spaces aesthetically, despite proportional spacing. (They may also prefer tabbing to start a paragraph; I get that; it gives you that “start of paragraph” feeling.) The “problem” is easy to fix, either after the manuscript is finished or at the typesetter. Why, then, the animosity? Why describe the two-space convention in emails typed with monospaced font as “overwrought, self-important, and dorky”? Why respond to such articles by typing two or three spaces after end punctuation “just to piss you off”?

My own sense is that prescriptivism in punctuation is received less kindly, in general, than prescriptivism in grammar. Deny as we might that aesthetics should come into play here, some writers prefer the look of the extra space, just as some prefer the look of punctuation that falls outside quotation marks, or the look of the single quote mark as opposed to the double. Despite one Slate commenter’s suggestion, “If you want ‘aesthetically pleasing’ … go to the art gallery. That is not the objective of the written (or typed) word,” our eyes fall on those words, and the multitude of fonts and styles now available in word-processing programs suggests that we have become more, not less, concerned with aesthetics in textual communication. To test this theory, I have typed one paragraph in this post with two spaces after every period. Did you notice? And how do you respond?



Return to Top