Friday, January 21, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Rethinking the Extra Space

by Peggy Robin

Every now and then you get shaken out of your complacency: An idea comes along or some discovery is made that makes you question the way you look at the universe. This happened to me recently. A long-held and deep-rooted belief of mine was shaken to the core. I am still struggling to change the way I act based on the revelation that my former view was wrong. I’m talking about a core concept here, involving space and alignment and the innate beauty of human expression. It’s all there in the rule that there must always be two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence.

But now I learn that is completely and utterly wrong.

I’m still dealing with the shock. Just reading that it’s wrong, of course, was not enough to alter my belief in the rightness of those two spaces. This was something I was taught when I learned to type in the mid-1960s, getting close a half a century ago. The teacher who taught it to me was a stern, gray-haired authority figure who must have learned the rule herself at the beginning of the century. I’m glad, in a way, that she never lived to see this day: She would not have been able to deal with this new reality, the singularity of the space -- much less change her ways.

Still, accept we must, because the holy scripture of writers, the Chicago Manual of Style, says it is so. (Read it here.) Now I know there are writers who do not regard the Chicago Manaul of Style as the final word. For the dissidents, there is another way, the Modern Language Association Style Manual, to which I turn in hope of dispensation to continue a practice I have no wish to abandon. I find, to my chagrin, the arbiters of the MLA agree with the style-setters of CMoS: One space after a period. Period. (Read it here.)

Both guardians of good writing offer the same reasoning for the rule: It is based in the modern, proportional-font character of writing. That is not, as you may have assumed, a function of the computer age; it pre-dates widespread use of PC, arising sometime in the mid-1970s when proportional spacing became possible on the more advanced typewriters. The two-space rule made sense back in the day when everyone typed on fixed-space typewriters, virtually all of which used Courier font that alotted the same space for wide letters (w, m) as for thin ones (i, l). It was harder on the eyes to have some letters mashed together while others were spaced too far apart, and so when you come to the end of a sentence, it felt right to see that extra bit of space. It was like a tiny bit of rest for your hardworking eyes. That was the rationale, at least. Once almost everyone had switched to machines that automatically produce the correct spacing between letters, there was no longer a need for a typist to manually insert an extra space between sentences to provide visual relief.

Most of us kept doing it anyway. I’m not sure when the rule changed or why there wasn’t more public debate when it occurred. I totally missed it. I just found out this week --years too late!-- when a friend sent me an article (more of a rant, actually) from Farhad Manjoo published in Slate magazine on January 13.  Manjoo’s tone is sneering and obnoxious but I have to concede he has made a solid case. One space after a period is now and for a long time has been the right way to punctuate. I have got to change my ways.

Here’s the problem, though. The two space habit is so ingrained, it’s like a body-memory. I can no more type one space after a period than I can learn to blink my eyes at a different rate. It’s completely automatic. So I find myself typing everything the way I normally do, and then I go back and tediously remove all the extra spaces. Not a good solution. You might well wonder, why bother to change? What’s the harm in continuing to type two spaces after a period? No harm, really, if all you’re doing is sending emails to friends and family. No harm if you are writing for a publication that uses software to strip out the extra spaces and perform any other necessary reformatting automatically. But lots of extra time and trouble if you are writing for an online publication without that fancy programming. I would have thought that a high-end online publication like Slate would be able to cope easily with extra spaces, but not so, according to Mr. Manjoo, who rails against the practice, apparently because it forces him to go through and manually, painstakingly remove each troublesome extra space.

Now we come to what happens if you don’t remove the extra space. That I can tell you from my own experience posting and editing articles on All Life Is Local: If the extra space happens to fall at the beginning of a line, it will show up as a one-space indent in front of that line in the published version of the article. That makes the article appear to have a “ragged left” margin. It’s visually unsettling, even if it happens just once in an article. It’s the typographic equivalent to me of nails on a chalkboard. So I find myself very motivated to change the way I type.  space space.  But I slip up so much, I’m starting to feel this is a war within myself, a war between my fingers and my brain. space space backspace delete extra space.  A war I may just lose in the end.

I welcome any advice (say, from experienced dog trainers) on how to break a bad but deeply ingrained habit. Please comment below if you think you can help.


  1. There exists a problem in some of the rest of the technological world, if one is not completely up to date with one's technological devices. I have an older "smart phone," and before anyone gets on my case, I could upgrade for free, but have resisted doing so (don't ask why).

    But to get to my point about spacing and this phone, if I type just one space after ending a sentence, this particular smart phone will not automatically capitalize the first letter of your next sentence. On the other hand, if I type two spaces after ending a sentence, then it automatically does the capitalization of the next word.

    Methinks that all the technological devices in this world should have coordinated on that type of technology long ago, particularly if the rules have existed for a long time. Maybe if I had an earlier start at the practice of typing just one space after a sentence, I'd be well on my way to being broken of my old habit by now.

    Still, I doubt I'll ever get used to using just one space after the end of a sentence myself, and I'm probably gonna be one of the last to go along with this trend. Of course, I've also rebelled against back-and-forth changes in grammar rules over the years - like where one does or does not put a comma, for example.

    The way I look at this whole matter is this: changes in the rules for writing style and grammar are just two of the things that I consider a royal pain in the "you-know-what!"

  2. Typing two spaces after periods is one of my pet peeves. I never liked doing it but was forced to in the workplace. But apparently a number of people have dealt with this issue because most word processing programs can be set to put one or two spaces after periods. If you type two spaces, your computer will automatically change it to one space as you type. Both WordPerfect and Microsoft Word have this provision. And just to double check, you can search and replace "two spaces" with "one space." Just hit your space bar once or twice in the appropriate search and replace boxes.

  3. Thanks for the tip -- will do. Still have the problem when I'm not using my own software or keyboard, but at least there's some hope for me.

  4. Peggy,

    If you are working with Microsoft Word, there's any easy fix to get rid of the two spaces before your document is finalized. I'm an editor, and I use this trick all the time with authors who submit manuscripts with two spaces. Just go to your "edit" menu and select "replace". Type two spaces in the "replace X" box, and a single space in the "replace with Y" box. Rinse and repeat until done.

  5. All I have to say is THANK YOU for this article. I've been arguing for a continuation of the old 2-spacs for years, finding the extra little space a necessary visual que that it really is the end of the sentence, and finding all those fancy fonts not quite doing the trick, even if they did correct that whole wide-letter vs. narrow-letter thing.

    But, if you can adjust, I can adjust.

    Hopefully someday all those word-processing software programs can adjust, too. Meanwhile, I vote with the folk above on the search-and-replace solution.

  6. Peggy,

    I think you are two quick to bow to this often vehemently ( and obnoxiously) held opinion. Most of what we write is meant for other people to read on paper. In this context, two spaces works much better. For a long time, I switched to one space because two was "only a typewriter convention," but I long ago switched back, making everything easier on the eye.

    Stand up for your convictions, girl.