Two Space or Not Two Space

August 22, 2011

. . . that is the question.

Or, to put it more precisely, is it correct to put one or two spaces after a sentence-ending period?

Farhad Manjoo of Slate (and notice how I am heroically resisting the temptation to make fun of his name) unequivocally states that the answer is one. “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong,” he says in his January 13th editorial, “Space Invaders.” He goes on to list all the reasons why we two-space dinosaurs are morons.

In his favor, I can think of two reasons why two spaces after a period is problematic. The first goes to good ole HTML. Extra white space is ignored. This is why, when I convert a web client’s essay into code, all his beautiful period-space-space typing reduces down to period-space. Achieving two spaces in a row is a pain in the ass, requiring the use of the “ ” code.

Also, as I’ve learned during the occasional book-design project, fully justified text looks like absolute shit when there are two spaces after periods. The way justification works is to proportionally add white space between words in a line in order to align both the left and right margins. So when a word processor applying justification parses two subsequent spaces, it adds that extra kerning to both of those spaces. This creates lines that look awesome until you come across between-sentence spaces measured in astronomical units.

That being said, I like using two spaces unless required not to. As Mr. Manjoo points out, many folks — having learned to type this way in school — just think it looks better.

That extra space makes it easier for us to locate the ends of sentences. And that’s the crux of it. Here are a couple more concrete scenarios in support of that extra space. The first shows it aids readability in sentences using abbreviations in the middle. Compare these two paragraphs:

Example #1:

I sat down across from Mr. Hat. He looked like a fat controller to me, if there ever was one.

Example #2:

I sat down across from Mr. Hat.  He looked like a fat controller to me, if there ever was one.

In example #1, you need to read the two sentences together for context and also register the use of the capital H in “He” to find where the second sentence begins. In example #2, you have both of those clues plus the extra space to clue you in. It makes for a faster reading experience, especially if you’re scanning — and isn’t scanning how we all read these days, anyway? (I’m the only fool who takes a month to read a book.)

Figuring out where a sentence ends is especially important when writing fiction. Consider this paragraph:

“Aren’t you just causing more confusion and delay?” Mr. Hat sighed.

At first glance, it looks like I’ve written that Mr. Hat has sighed out a question. But no, what I really intended was for you to read the first sentence and understand that Mr. Hat said it, and then in the next sentence to hear him sighing. “Mr. Hat sighed” was not a dialogue attribution in this instance, but because there was only one space between the end-quotation mark and the beginning of the next sentence, you probably didn’t realize this . . . and therefore, I, as the writer, have lost one of my communication tools, thrown under the bus of Mr. Manjoo’s insistence that I’m just “wrong.”

Wrong, right. Moral absolutism probably doesn’t have a place here. Isn’t the “right” thing to communicate clearly?

Hell, if I want to get technical, I could nitpick Mr. Manjoo’s use of a colon in the sentence, “Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s.” I was taught that a colon, like a semicolon, is not the end of a sentence. Therefore “Monospaced” in his sentence should have been decapitalized.

But I wouldn’t presume.

One thought on “Two Space or Not Two Space

  1. Great post, and I agree with everything you said. And the double-space didn’t go out in the 70s, because I learned it and used it in secretarial jobs from the 80s to the early 90s!