Spaced Out

A while ago I shared an article on Facebook that reported the death of the last person ever to put two spaces after the full stop at the end of a sentence. Although the piece was fictitious (fake news on social media, who knew?) and meant to be humorous, I got replies from people who loudly and proudly maintained that they still followed the practice.

I wondered, though, whether these correspondents knew why they were doing it.

One even speculated that his typing teacher would be rolling in her grave.

Exactly.

In typing classes in the last century, students of my generation were taught to press the space bar twice after the period. They obeyed. Today, fifty years later, some still obey.

The ancient Romans sometimes chiselled a dot between words they wanted to separate on columns and monuments. If you look at the Bayeux Tapestry, you see that individual words are separated by two dots that look like colons, and larger breaks are demarcated by three dots. When illuminated manuscripts began to be created, spacing became more attractive and consistent. Of course all this stuff took decades to do.

As people began to publish books, they found they could give better definition to the page and facilitate reading by making the spacing between sentences greater than the spacing between words. Typesetters could manually vary the amount of space after the end of each sentence (called sentence spacing) to be anything they liked. By the twentieth century, a common standard was to insert a space between sentences that was about 50% wider than the spaces between words.

When typewriters appeared on the scene, this flexibility was lost; there was only one space bar, and it moved the carriage exactly one space every time. Consequently the gap between sentences was the same as the gap between words, which just looked wrong.

The solution was to insert two spaces before you started the next sentence. And this is what your typing teacher taught you. (You also typed a single quote mark, then backspaced and typed a period under it to make an exclamation mark, remember?)

Note the "exclamation mark."

As electric typewriters and then electronic word processing became the world standard, typing became less labour intensive. Exclamation marks were available! There was less incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome from manhandling the shift key. And there was no longer a need to worry about manually separating letters, words, or sentences. Since the 1980s, Microsoft Word has obligingly calculated the perfect spacing for each character, each word, and each sentence, and inserted it for you.

Because the need for those two spaces no longer exists, nearly all professional writing styles have adopted the practice of inserting only a single space between sentences. The Chicago Manual of Style, basically the bible of written English usage, advises leaving a single space. The American Psychological Association (APA style), the standard for many scientific and sociological papers, differs slightly. It does recommend two spaces, but “for draft manuscripts,” so that the written work can be marked or critiqued by hand more easily. Anything publishable gets that extra space eliminated.

In fact, one of the first things I do with any professional document sent to me for editing is remove all the extra spaces. If I don’t do it, the typesetter at the publisher or magazine will.

In summary, typing two spaces after a full stop in the twenty-first century is about as necessary and useful as hitching a horse to a car. Some people think that two spaces look better. Mostly they just make your document look like it was written in 1965. People thought corsets and bustles made people look better at one time too.

By all means, put two or twelve spaces anywhere you like; it’s not illegal, it’s merely useless and old fashioned. And anyway, in today’s world the whole issue has shades of a Lilliputian egg feud .

But I don’t get up and walk across the floor anymore to change channels on my TV; I no longer rewind a damaged cassette tape with a pencil; I don’t stand in line so a teller can deposit a cheque for me.

And I don’t hit the space bar twice after a full stop.

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