It is acceptable to use two spaces after a period.
Why am I moved to make this declaration? Because every so often a typographic tyrant goes off their OCD medication and launches a caustic diatribe at anyone who prefers to use two spaces between adjoining sentences. These deranged attacks, absurd as they are, can do real damage to writers. Ditchwalk will not tolerate anyone who uses authority or prominence to ridicule or intimidate writers, or in any way make writing more difficult than it already is.
The Question in Context
As a writer of any kind — private, professional, traditional, experimental — you have two obligations. The first is to be honest to your own intentions. The second is to communicate your intentions to the intended reader as effectively as possible.
These obligations hold whether you are writing an email to a single person or publishing a work for the masses. They remain your responsibility even if you choose to involve others in the process. Agents, editors, publishers, typographers and others who make a living off authorship are peripheral to your work as a writer. They may be central to your goals as a business person, they may be central to your ability to produce a physical book or e-book file, but they are not writers.
You are a writer. Your job is to write for your readers. That’s true whether you’re an established author or just starting out. The problem, of course, is that when you’re just starting out you’re not sure what you’re doing. Complicating matters is the fact that some of the agents, editors, publishers, typographers and others who make a living off authorship will gladly claim expertise and authority even in matters they know nothing about. This includes everything from telling you what your obligations are as a writer to how many blank spaces should follow a period.
Why would someone do this? Because it makes money. Because they are control freaks. Because they genuinely believe their little corner of the universe is the only thing that matters. Because they have confused the needs of the reader with the demands of the market. Because they hate the fact that you can write and they can’t. Take your pick.
Whether you choose to defer to peripheral voices or ignore them, no choice voids your basic obligations as a writer. There are no shortcuts. You must ask and answer a million questions in order to write well. At times you may find there is no agreement about an issue. In those instances you will have to choose what you prefer or think best, not what’s right or true.
The most important thing I can tell you about navigating any writing issue is this. The second most important thing I can tell you is to always keep perspective. Relative to the eternal obligations of every author, the question of how many spaces should follow a period is a flea on the great stellar flank of our galaxy.
You should also be particularly wary of any agent, editor, publisher, typographer or other person peripheral to the writer-reader relationship who uses a claim of expertise to cow you into conformity. Authorship is about making conscious, informed choices, not about blindly accepting the opinions of others.
How many writers have ever said that two spaces after a period is a sign of amateurism? How many writers would dismiss your content outright if you used two spaces instead of one? Is this a common source of discussion at writing workshops and retreats? Have you ever seen a breakout session at a convention titled The Two-Space Debate? Has anyone ever said, in the entire history of the world, “This would have been a great book, but because the author used two spaces after a period it is an unmitigated disaster.”
If you are writing a book narrowly targeted at people who believe two spaces after a period is a portent of the End Times, then yes, you should probably use a single space after a period. Other than that, you should learn as much about this and every other issue as you can, then make your own case-by-case decisions.
For myself, I have generally used two spaces after a period to no ill effect. No one who has ever paid me money to write, or ever received a document written by me, has ever asked me to use a single space after a period, or even commented about my practice. Recently, however, after twenty-five years of writing, I did come across an instance in which I found two spaces to be distracting, and I will expand on that experience below.
In the remainder of this post I intend to: dismantle a recent diatribe against the use of two spaces after a period; explain when and why I use one space or two spaces after a period; make the case that excessive interest in this issue should be included as classification criteria in DSM-5.
Questioning the Question
When confronting any argument the first thing to take note of is the premise. Like statistics, arguments can be structured to prove anything, meaning the specifics of an argument are only valid if the premise is valid. The premise in this case is that adding two spaces after a period damages the reading experience for the average reader.
There is no evidence in the entire history of the universe that using two spaces after a period has caused irreparable harm, gross insult, lasting disease, mass hysteria, or any negative effect on the human species whatsoever. Why would anyone care so deeply about something so meaningless? The first concern would obviously be an undiagnosed disease process of some kind, but I’m not a doctor so I don’t want to speculate about the mental effects of things like, say, syphilis. I do believe I am qualified, however, by virtue of age and experience, to suggest two motivations that might be fueling such rants, neither of which has anything to do with typography or the needs of the vast majority of people who write or read.
First, I am convinced that people who obsess about this issue genuinely feel they are being assaulted when they come across two spaces after a period. Nobody who did not experience a psychic blow when confronted by two spaces would ever make something like that up, for the simple reason that doing so would define them as loony. Assuming that some people do have a violent reaction, then — in the same way a person might recoil at a photograph of a small, harmless, good-for-your-garden spider, let alone the real thing — I think it’s understandable that they might want to prevent such trauma in the future.
Second, anyone who believes that their own irrational beliefs should be universally adopted by others clearly shows a tendency toward orthodoxy. Practitioners of orthodoxy around the world see no problem with bludgeoning others into submission, even as they remain blind to the extremity of their own views. Typographic fundamentalists are no different.
The latest inadvertent psychiatric revelation triggered by the two-space debate comes from one Farhad Manjoo, who writes for a website called Slate. See if you can recognize the signs:
[Julian Assange is] a fellow who’s been using computers since at least the mid-1980s, a guy whose globetrotting tech-wizardry has come to symbolize all that’s revolutionary about the digital age. Yet when he sits down to type, Julian Assange reverts to an antiquated habit that would not have been out of place in the secretarial pools of the 1950s: He uses two spaces after every period. Which—for the record—is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.
Given everything you yourself do or do not know about Wikileaks and Julian Assange, what mental state would you have to be in to ignore all of that and fixate on the number of spaces that Assange was using after a period? Better yet, what sort of obsessive, conformist mind would you have to have to notice whether anyone was using one space or two. Have you ever noticed this in any piece of text? Do you know anyone who has ever noticed this? Has anyone ever commented on your own practice in this regard?
My guess is that your answers to the above questions are no, no and no. Unless, of course you found yourself the manic focus of a typographic fundamentalist bent on converting you to the one true, right and good way to segregate sentences from each other.
If you have had that kind of ferocious condescension aimed at you, you may have ended up feeling bad or inadequate about your punctuation. If so, I hope it brings some relief to learn that this power dynamic was probably the real objective of the person who berated you. Not only wouldn’t a kind or caring person try to humiliate you about something so petty and meaningless, a normal, healthy mind would recognize that in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter whether a person uses one space or two after a period Because in the whole history of the universe using two spaces has not caused irreparable harm, gross insult, lasting disease, mass hysteria, or, in fact, any negative effect on the human species whatsoever.
(The ability to notice odd or stray details can, in some instances, be critical. When a detective notices something that solves a murder, that’s a good thing. When your mechanic points to a belt or tire that is about to split, that’s a good thing. But when someone points out a bit of black lint on your black sweater, or that you’re holding your coffee cup at a less-than-optimal ergonomic elbow angle, or that you’re using two spaces after a period, nobody is being saved, no crime is being solved and no tragedy is being averted. The only thing happening is that authority is being asserted over you, often under the pretense of saving you from embarrassing yourself.)
The means by which typographic fundamentalists advance their orthodox views is the same in writing as it is in religion. “Will I get to heaven?” is replaced by “Will I get published?”, but in each case fear and uncertainty leaves the door open for exploitation and abuse by people of nefarious intent. Like the religious leader who claims to speak for a god, or who claims to be the sole reliable interpreter of a religious text, typographic fundamentalists exploit fear and uncertainty by holding themselves out as authorities.
In a way it makes sense: if you want to know about a god, who knows more than a religious leader? If you want to know how to fix your balky web site, who knows more than your hosting provider? If you want to know about spacing between sentences, who knows more than a typographer?
We are, rightly, taught to appeal to authority and expertise when seeking answers to questions. That’s not the problem. The problem is that such appeals invariably involve other human beings who may be missing a few marbles. In my own experience some of the people I have sought answers from have been loving, supportive and giving, while some have been users, bullies and frauds. Such is life.
A Case Study
So who should you listen to? How can you sort out mean-spirited orthodox nuts from the great, open, loving and supportive community of writers to which I belong? Pay attention to language. If someone is speaking in absolutes, that’s a good sign that they are an extremist. Here’s Manjoo, making his case:
Two-spacers are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste. You’d expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you’d be wrong; every third e-mail I get from readers includes the two-space error.
While perhaps intended as an homage to Joe McCarthy, this kind of paranoid, absolutist demagoguery has no place in a free and open society. There is no subversive assault being launched. There is no organized two-space conspiracy poised to topple our democracy. There is, simply, preference.
And that’s the difference between the typographic fundamentalists and me. I’m open to diversity, they’re not. I’m supportive of creative expression, they believe you should stay inside the barbed-wire perimeter. I’m for getting along, they’re for clubbing you senseless. I’m for letting the small stuff go, they’re convinced that the small stuff will do damage to their brains unless they wear tin foil hats. I am willing to acknowledge that the question of how many spaces should be used after a period may involve some measure of personal choice; they are convinced beyond any doubt that using two spaces after a period is a crime against nature, humanity, all gods, and — most importantly — their own asserted authority and expertise.
Traditionally, one of the main tools of the fundamentalist trade is projection, which is “the tendency to ascribe to another person feelings, thoughts, or attitudes present in oneself…” Here’s Manjoo:
What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.
When you’re determined to control the behavior of human beings, it always helps to preposition yourself as a victim. That way, at least in your own mind, your intended abuses can be seen as righteous. As already quoted, here’s how Manjoo prepositioned himself:
[Assange] uses two spaces after every period. Which—for the record—is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.
Now I ask you: who’s asserting certainty here? Where I allow for a difference of opinion on the subject, Manjoo and others like him demand strict obedience and conformity (hence the projection). Thankfully, most people have no experience confronting this sort of wild-eyed fanaticism in the wild. Unfortunately, in seeking to prove that a two-space conspiracy was threatening his precious bodily fluids, Manjoo himself felt compelled to traumatize a group of gentle, unsuspecting souls:
Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces.
Two things here. First, Manjoo prejudges the question by asking for the ‘correct’ answer. He doesn’t ask if people have a preference, but confronts them with the threat of embarrassment if they give a wrong answer in public. Second, even though everyone said that two spaces was correct, there was never a single moment — not an instant — where Manjoo himself was moved to doubt the truth of his own opposing view. Or even to allow for the possibility that there might be some aspect of preference inherent in the question.
If the unanimity of the respondents wasn’t enough, it further transpired that in practice most of those gathered used one space or two spaces at different times — apparently out of some delusional belief that they should trust their own judgment in each instance, rather than slave themselves to an absolute rule. Ignoring the glaring implication that preference and instance might indeed be the proper basis for determining how many spaces to use after a period, Manjoo instead took righteous glee in springing his trap:
“Who says two spaces is wrong?” they wanted to know.
Typographers, that’s who.
Over the years I have read countless arguments put forward by single-space fanatics, and this is where they all end up. Single-spacers believe that at some point all typographers around the world got together at Area 51 and decided that two spaces after a period is the equivalent of typographical treason. Manjoo is no exception:
The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually.
This didn’t happen. Not only was the modern bias against two spaces not adopted after rigorous debate and consideration of all the facts, it wasn’t even adopted as a result of the opinions of typographers. Rather, as Manjoo’s own witness will testify, it was determined by the functionality of machinery designed at the time — much as two spaces after a period was in large part perpetuated by the technological limitations of the typewriter.
We’re all familiar with experts and their advice. We’re also familiar with expert advice that fluctuates wildly over time. In my lifetime mothers have been advised to nurse their babies, to use formula, to nurse their babies again, and now, most recently, to combine nursing with formula at a specific developmental milestone. In my lifetime women have also been advised to get mammograms, not to get mammograms, and to get mammograms only if they have specific risk factors, to the point that even the experts charged with issuing these recommendations are having a blood feud about what to say to all of the women who have been completely terrorized by this research.
Despite these obvious examples, and many more I might cite, writers are asked to believe that not only is there unanimity about whether one space or two spaces is correct, but that the issue rises to a level of importance beyond other typographic issues that are demonstrably more distracting to readers.
I have personally refused to read or purchase professionally designed and printed books that employed stylistic or otherwise difficult-to-read fonts. I’ve avoided books that used light-colored ink on off-white paper, rendering the page a bland celebration of cost-cutting grays in preference of readable contrast. But of all the typographical reasons why I’ve rejected a book, across the great breadth of my life, I have never — and you have never, and nobody you know has ever, ever — rejected a book because it used two spaces after a period. Until all other abuses are resolved, and typographers agree to stop using wacky, trendy or exotic new fonts over old, trusted, reliable, proven, effective, transparent fonts simply because they’re bored out of their freaking minds, I don’t want to hear another typographer talk about how important it is to wipe out the preferential practice of using two spaces after a period.
A Personal Aside
I recognize that I’m allowing a bit of passion to show here myself, and I apologize for that. Most typographers are good, honest, hardworking citizens who toil anonymously in support of the writer-reader relationship. They are to be thanked. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve been accosted by acolytes of an obscure discipline, and I’m afraid my normal reserve and decorum may have been worn down by previous battles.
It’s still hard to talk about this, but when I was growing up I was serially abused by fundamentalist audiophiles. Like typographers standing guard over type, the audiophiles insisted they were the sole authority over sounds. It didn’t matter who made the sounds, or what the sounds said, or if the sounds were poetic or insipid: all that mattered was fidelity. Like typographers, audiophiles believed their metrics and standards were the truth, rather than merely the obsessive preference of a small group of self-selecting devotees.
I have good hearing, even now. When I was younger my hearing was great. In my professional life I’ve worked with recording engineers, and have been complimented on my ability to pick out the faintest hiss or pop. Despite this capacity, during the Age of the Audiophile I was never able to hear the difference between 0.001 ohms of impedance and 0.002 ohms of impedance. This despite many condescending and belittling assurances from audiophiles that they themselves could easily do so.
Assuming for the sake of argument that I was wrong and the audiophiles were right, consider the effect of the audiophile movement on the market and the world. Forty years later the dominant music format is the MP3. The fidelity of an MP3 is, to an audiophile, what a train wreck is to a locomotive engineer. Despite this fact the average person — by which I mean 99.99% of the world’s population — is perfectly happy with the MP3.
Back on the Case
If we allow for the sake of argument that typography as a profession has favored even a general guideline about the number of spaces that should follow a period, it’s important to note that doing so seems to have had produced no change in reading habits or market dynamics. The transition from two spaces as vague standard to one space as vague standard evoked little or no actual notice, despite the fact that typographers believe the difference is critical to the reading experience.
Could it be that typography is actually irrelevant to the needs of most readers and writers? As a typographic fundamentalist, Manjoo avoids the question by granting typography unquestioned authority:
Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule.
If you are new to writing you may be tempted to believe such a bold statement. Who would state something so categorically if it wasn’t true? Well, a fanatic, for one.
The implication of any typographical rule is that it serves the writer-reader relationship. But as my own life experience, and yours, and that of virtually every human being you have ever known attests, this is not true in this case. There is no relationship between using a single space or a double space after a period and any of the following: commercial success, authorial power, reader comprehension or reader interest.
How can this be? How can typographers care so passionately about something that has no demonstrable impact on the real world? Because what typographers mean when they say they prefer a single space to two spaces — if indeed they voice a preference at all — is that it’s preferable to them. They’re not claiming they have data or polling from readers that indicates a strong preference for a single space after a period, although they don’t mind if you jump to that conclusion. Rather, they are saying that they themselves prefer a single space.
What could possibly account for this preference? What is it about typography that would lead typographers to even have a preference, where most readers have no preference and most writers have varying preferences? I think there are several reasons, all of them valid from the typographers point of view of, and all of them meaningless from the point of view of everybody else.
I’ll explore these reasons momentarily, but for now I want to stay with Manjoo’s invective, in the fervent hope that this post may prevent unsuspecting writers from falling into his intellectual abyss. The first authority Manjoo references in support of his claim that typographers “decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences” is James Felici. True enough, the post that Manjoo links to begins as follows:
To Double-Space or Not to Double-Space…
A thought-provoking disquisition on the thorny issue of how much space should follow a sentence-ending period.
Written by James Felici on August 24, 2009
It’s the debate that refuses to die: Do you set one word space or two after a period? In all my years of writing about type, it’s still the question I hear most often, and a search of the web will find threads galore on the subject. I’m going to try to put an end to the argument here.
In support of his wild claim that “every” typographer agrees with the one-space rule, Manjoo also links to several organizations that maintain usage standards, including the MLA. (Helpfully, a number of Majoo’s own readers have pointed out that “as a practical matter” MLA sees “nothing wrong” with using two spaces after a period.) Of the links Manjoo provides in support of his argument, however, the link to Felici’s post most directly addresses the foundations of the two-space debate. Which makes it all the more damning that Felici himself single-handedly demolishes the first historical claim Manjoo makes.
Here’s Manjoo on the origin of the use of two spaces after a period:
Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong.
Here’s Felici on the same point:
But the use of double spaces (or other exaggerated spacing) after a period is a typographic convention with roots that far predate the typewriter.
Manjoo does provide a reasonable explanation of the differences between monospaced fonts and proportional fonts:
The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.
Felici agrees, and includes a helpful graphic to demonstrate monospacing:
Characters in monospaced typefaces look weird, forced by mechanical necessity onto a Procrustean bed. Some — like the M — look pinched, while some are grossly expanded — such as the i or l. Side bearings for narrow characters such as punctuation marks have to be puffed up. The overall effect of such type is very airy and open and its spacing is poorly modulated.
The mechanism for moving the carriage of a typewriter obliged every character to take up the same amount of space on the line, as shown in these monospaced faces. Punctuation — whose shapes can’t be adapted — fares particularly badly. From top to bottom are Courier, Letter Gothic, and Prestige.
Proportional fonts acknowledge that an ‘l’ is not as wide as a ‘w’. In a proportional font the total width of a character — meaning the character itself and the white space to either side — is dependent on the character’s width. You can see this clearly in this post, in the word ‘width’ for example, where the ‘i’ is narrower than the ‘w’ or ‘d’ to either side.
Typographers fret about the width of character — including any bounding white space — endlessly and with justification (later pun not intended here). Character width is a big part of the typographical profession, and alone differentiates the entire class of monospaced fonts from proportional fonts. For blank spaces width is literally the only defining aspect, because a blank space by definition has no other characteristic.
Manjoo acknowledges causal claims by typographers that a single space after a period improves the reader’s experience:
Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.
Manjoo supports the point with two hard-line quotes from typographic fundamentalists, the second of which I will come back to and obliterate shortly. Then, after arguing that there is no debate about whether one space or two spaces should be used, and after claiming that all typographers agree that one space should be used, Manjoo makes an utterly jaw-dropping statement:
This readability argument is debatable. Typographers can point to no studies or any other evidence proving that single spaces improve readability.
Every typographer on the face of the earth has sworn a blood oath in support of a single space after a period, yet there is no actual evidence that using two spaces makes life harder for the reader? What else could possibly convince every living typographer that a single space is preferable to two?
Manjoo drops a bomb:
When you press them on it, they tend to cite their aesthetic sensibilities. As Jury says, “It’s so bloody ugly.”
But I actually think aesthetics are the best argument in favor of one space over two. One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing (it also requires less work, which isn’t nothing). A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.
If you’re not familiar with ‘aesthetics’ as an internationally-approved standard of scientific measurement, allow me to explain. Saying that aesthetics is the best argument in favor of one space over two is like saying the tongue is the best argument in favor of chocolate over vanilla. Or that eyesight is the best argument in favor of redheads over brunettes. Or that what you like is the best argument in favor of what you like. Meaning it’s a matter of personal preference.
Unbelievably, after making claims to authority and claims to standards and claims to empirical evidence and claims to utility, Manjoo settles on a subjective standard as the basis for forcing the rest of the world to embrace his own typographical kinks. And in this we come full circle, not to a proof about the superiority of one space over two, but rather to a proof of Manjoo’s interest in allying himself with typographers and their aesthetic preferences. When Manjoo says, “Typographers, that’s who,” what he really means is, “Typographers who agree with me, that’s who.”
Closing the Case
I do believe that some people feel pain or discomfort when they see two spaces after a period, and I think Manjoo is one of those unlucky people. But that is not the same thing as being an epileptic and having a seizure while playing a video game. We are not talking about a neurological problem, but hyperactive preference. If typographers did not agree with Manjoo’s own aesthetic, I firmly believe he would throw the lot overboard and remain unbowed in his belief that two spaces after a period is an abomination.
In fact, Manjoo’s defense of his own aesthetic is so tautological as to be absurd:
A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.
Predictably, part of his absurd justification mirrors the second of the two hard-line quotes mentioned above:
“If you get a really big pause—a big hole—in the middle of a line, the reader pauses. And you don’t want people to pause all the time. You want the text to flow.”
This obsession with holes is, in effect, a negative-space argument against using two spaces after a period. The positive-space argument is the one that Manjoo and Filici agree on, which concerns the width of letters in monospaced and proportional fonts. These two arguments are used again and again in support of a single-space after a period, yet as I’ll soon show neither of these rationales makes any sense.
In the end, even Manjoo cannot help but admit the truth:
Is this arbitrary? Sure it is.
He follows this admission with a feeble raspberry from the balcony:
Besides, the argument in favor of two spaces isn’t any less arbitrary.
Well, no, it isn’t. But it isn’t any more arbitrary, either.
Manjoo closes by reiterating the myth that using two spaces after a period is an artifact of outdated technology:
The only reason today’s teachers learned to use two spaces is because their teachers were in the grip of old-school technology. We would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that’s what was popular back when they were in school. The same should go for typing.
Whereupon Felici steps back in and utterly demolishes Manjoo:
Interestingly, by the 1960s, electronic phototypesetting systems went as far as ignoring consecutive word spaces altogether when they appeared in text. If the system found consecutive word spaces, it regarded that as a mistake and collapsed them into a single space. For the generation of typesetters who grew up during this regime, this no-nonsense interdiction may be part of the source of the notion that double spaces are not just a bad idea but are in fact verboten.
There you have it. During the age of the typewriter two spaces after a period had some actual utility in terms of readability, because most typewriters used monospaced fonts. During the age of the computer, however, a few geeks decided that multiple spaces would be ignored, perpetuating yet another technology-driven standard that had nothing to do with improving readability, nothing to do with listening to typographers, and nothing to do with what readers and writers wanted.
That typographers may now prefer this historical accident is notable, but does nothing to prove the validity or utility of the practice.
Typography and the Single-Space Aesthetic
Is the persistent bias against two spaces in modern typography merely a function of technology? I don’t think so. I think there are reasons why typographers prefer a single space to two spaces, even if those reasons have nothing to do with readability or anything to do with advancing the writer-reader relationship.
Were I a typographer I would lean toward the single-space standard for the following reasons:
It’s hard to be an authority if what you think is merely a subjective preference. Interior decorators work like dogs to demonstrate expertise, because when they say your corner table absolutely demands a $600 vase — the price of which will increase their own take home pay — they need you to believe them. This kind of expertise is different from, say, a brain surgeon’s expertise, but we’ll still call it expertise.
As a typographer I would support a single-space standard not because I had any real evidence in its favor, or any personal conviction about the issue, but because I knew it was the industry standard. If I bucked that standard other typographers might claim I was a witch and try to steal my clients, and that would be bad for business.
But fear would not be my only motivation. Like a real estate agent repackaging a property as a new listing when it had already been on the market for a year and a half, I would also take solace in knowing that I was supporting, and supported by, an industry-standard practice. (Tip: it’s a lot easier to claim expertise if you follow industry-standard practices.)
We all know people who are meticulous. While it’s probably unfair to generalize, my guess is that typographers tend to be meticulous. Where you or I might notice badly-printed type or a font that is difficult to read, typographers note the arc, slope, pitch, radius, thickness, heft, balance and emotional resonance of every line in every character in every font that meets their eyes. And that’s before they judge how individual lines come together to form a single character, how characters look when they make words, how words appear when trained in sentences, how sentences block into paragraphs, and how those paragraphs represent on the page.
Whatever else you may think about typographers, these people are not slackers. They care. Maybe too much, but who among us has not gone off the deep end over an abiding passion — if not also enjoyed doing so?
Given how much time typographers spend thinking about meticulous issues — how deep they look into every nook and cranny of each character they come across — the one thing they know for sure is that nobody knows type the way they know type. Writers and readers don’t care the way typographers care, so when it comes to trusting someone’s aesthetic judgment typographers tend to trust their own. And I don’t blame them.
Because a blank space is blank space, writers and readers naively assume that it’s literally nothing. But to a typographer the width of a blank space is critical to the balance of any printed text. Blanks spaces show up (so to speak) between every word, and after every sentence, so in terms of prominence they’re right up there with e’s, a’s and t’s. (In languages other than English your letter frequency may vary.)
The width of each blank space that accompanies a font has been agonized over in a way that you have never agonized over anything in your life. There is no aspect of the width of that space that was not considered and reconsidered and checked and rechecked before it was put on public display.
When a vandal comes along and adds a second blank space after a period, the average typographer responds as an architect would if a second identical kitchen was added to a house they designed. Or how a husband or wife would react if their spouse married again without first getting divorced. To a typographer the violation is that extreme.
Ease of Use
Imagine that your job is to take what a writer types and create a book from that content. You would probably prefer not to spend time fixing stupid errors or correcting authorial quirks in the manuscript. Over time you might even come to resent writers for their ignorant, selfish, self-indulgent practices, if not also for the way they take you for granted, ignore your contributions, and never take you dancing.
In the computer age, nothing has simplified the life of a typographer (or editor) like the find/replace function. Rather than search by eye for instances of from transposed as form (and vice versa), each term can be specifically searched for and checked. In a 500-page manuscript the whole process might take a matter of minutes, and with guaranteed success.
Because writers are stupid, lazy and hateful, they often do things the wrong way. One of the things writers love to do is ignore the power and functionality of margins and styles, choosing instead to format text using endless strings of blank spaces and tabs. I am willing to admit that this is bad practice — even demonstrably ‘wrong’ — but to a typographer such things are felt as violence.
By insisting that only a single space appear after each period, typographers simplify the question of how many spaces should ever appear together: one. Find/replace can then be used to search for two consecutive blank spaces, and every found instance can easily be corrected.
Now consider the reverse. If two spaces are allowed after a period, how can a typographer use find/replace to locate an instance where the writer added only a single space? Searching for a period followed by a single space would still find all instances of two spaces after a period. Searching for two spaces would miss any period followed by a single space. And of course searching for a single space would find every gap between every word in the entire text.
The only way to find instances of a single space after a period when two spaces was intended would be to look at every period with the human eye and check to see if one or two spaces followed. Madness.
For all these reasons I do have sympathy for typographers. For the record, I am thankful for the contributions typographers have made to our culture. For more on typography, I heartily recommend this movie. It will change your life. Or confirm your darkest suspicions.
Reach out, right now, and pick up any nearby book. Open the book and look at any page and I guarantee you the text will be justified. That’s how books are printed: each line begins and ends at the exact same place on the page, making both the right and left margins flush. (Examples here.)
Justified text is so prevalent in every publishing medium that it’s by far the norm. Or at least it was until HTML and browsers came along with a geek-determined single-space-in-all-instances approach to displaying text. Still, even now all physical books, all magazines, all newspapers — everything that the average person might read on any given day — is formatted with justified text.
It’s not surprising, then, that typographers tend to assume any discussion of text is a discussion of justified text. That’s where the vast bulk of the work and need and money is in the typographic profession. (Take a look at Felici’s post again. Every example he provides is justified text. Because most of the examples pre-date computerized justification, the line length and word spacing would have been set by hand.)
Now, contrast this with my own writing history. The vast majority of my writing is done using Word, or various software applications that do not default to justified text. Rather, these applications all use a flush-left, ragged-right paragraph format like you see in this post: the left end of each line is flush, the right end of each line terminates at a word break closest to the page margin. Every email I (and you) have ever written has been flush-left, ragged right. Every blog post or HTML doc, the same.
No design doc, no specification for a game, no script, no dialogue, no work of any kind that I wrote, paid or unpaid, over twenty-five years, has ever required me to use justified text. Until, that is, I formatted my short story collection, The Year of the Elm (TYOTE), for print-on-demand (POD).
True story. The moment — literally the exact second — that I converted the flush-left, ragged-right Word text of TYOTE to justified text, I immediately realized that my habit of using two spaces after a period no longer worked. The gap between each period and the following capital was simply too big as measured by my personal aesthetic.
In that instant I also realized that all of the fuss about declaring a hard and fast rule for the number of spaces after a period was heavily influenced by paragraph format. If you use justified text, two spaces after a period doesn’t look right because automatic justification widens the gaps even more. For ragged-right paragraphs, however, I think two spaces is not only better, but that using two spaces solves an inherent problem.
The Eyes Have It
In what follows I make no claim that any of my observations are original. I’m also quite confident that typographers already have specific terms for the variances I describe. I do claim, however, that my reasoning is correct, and that it voids every argument I have ever heard in support of a universal single-space-after-a-period rule.
I said earlier that one of the things typographers are deeply concerned about is width. Here again is Felici’s image of monospaced fonts in action:
You can see how each letter is given the same width in monospace. Some letters take up the full width of the allotted space (see the splayed feet of the capital ‘A’, for example), while other letters are bounded by considerable white space (the lowercase ‘l’). A proportional version of the same font would look exactly the same in terms of the letters, but would not be padded with white space to achieve uniform widths.
Because typographers know all this they tend to ‘see’ the width of characters rather than the characters themselves. But most people are not typographers. They aren’t trained to think of a character as its width. Rather, the vast majority of people see characters as characters. White space, even if it accounts for part of the width of a character, is not recognized.
When typographers base arguments about type on character width and spacing, I think they overlook a rather obvious point. To see what I mean, consider the following sentence fragments showing a period, a single space, and a following capital:
The thirteen capitals I’ve included represent the various ways the left side of a capital can vary. For example, ‘B’ has a flush-left edge, so ‘D’, ‘E’, F’ and similarly constructed letters have been omitted. Even though each one of the capitals follows a single space and a period, if you look closely you’ll see that the distance from each period to the closest visible part of the following capital varies.
Here are the same letters enlarged, making the differences easier to see:
Look closely at the capital ‘A’ and capital ‘T’. The foot of the ‘A’ lunges toward the period, while the umbrella shape of the ‘T’ means the closest part of that letter is farther away. Each capital follows a period and is separated by one consistent-sized space, but because of the shape of the letter the size of the gap varies.
Here are the same images with an equal-radius dot added, making the differences clear:
As you can see, letters like ‘A’ and ‘J’ squeeze the gap between the period and the following capital, while letters like ‘T’ and ‘Y’ are half again as wide to the eye.
That’s why I use two spaces after a period almost all the time: because in trying to define a single-width blank space that works with all character shapes, I think type designers cut things a little too close on letters like ‘A’ and ‘J’. Yes, that’s my subjective opinion, but it’s grounded in the fact that what typographers say is not true: a single-width blank space does not in fact produce a consistent single-width space. It’s the shape of the following character, not its width, that defines the width of the gap to the eye.
The following two examples of unjustified, ragged-right text are the same in all respects. In the first example there is only one space after each period:
Note that because the text is not justified, all of the gaps look essentially the same even allowing for differences in the shapes of the letters. Now consider the same paragraph with two spaces after each period:
Despite whatever rule you’ve been taught, despite what the experts say, and despite your own personal preferences, do you see any real difference between those two blocks of flush-left, ragged-right text? Yes, it’s apparent that there is more space after each period in the second example, but is it really distracting? Would you have noticed if we hadn’t been talking about the issue? Would it have put you off? Or do you like the fact that sentences are given greater distinction than individuals words?
Now consider the same two examples, only this time each paragraph is justified. Here’s the version with one space after each period:
Notice now that the spaces between words are no longer uniformly narrow, but variable in width. To my eye the text now seems riddled with the same kind of holes that typographers decry when arguing against two spaces after a period. In the first line alone the space between ‘dolor’ and ‘sit’ looks as big as the space after any period.
Here’s the justified version with two spaces after each period:
I believe justification makes a two-space gap after a period too big. But those gaps are not that much bigger than some of the other holes that justification has created. I also want to point out that I’ve been charitable in the above examples. The holes that show up in justified text only increase as paragraph width narrows or font size increases. Here are excerpts of the same texts in paragraphs narrowed by one inch:
Note the growing size of the white-space holes. Now here’s the same text in a newspaper column, with the font size bumped up to 14:
Note the crazy-huge gap on the sixth line between ‘nostrud’ and ‘exercitation’. It’s larger than the gap after any period in the two-space version on the right.
I’m aware that typographers have tricks for dealing with rogue gaps, including hyphenating words. I’m not arguing that typography cannot reduce the size of a hole if the gap between two words becomes distracting. I also readily admit that these last two examples show text that no typographer would put their name on.
The fact remains, however, that justified text — which is still the norm in book, magazine and newspaper publishing — does far more to pepper a page with allegedly-distracting holes than does using a two-space gap after a period in unjustified text.
I say “allegedly-distracting” because the truth is that the gap-width between words and sentences doesn’t matter to most people. The fact is that the width of white-space gaps — unless they are wide enough to make a reader wonder if a word is missing — have little or nothing to do with readability, and everything to do with the same aesthetic preferences that drive much of typography.
Not only aren’t readers slowed down by gaps in words, even when the width of gaps varies randomly as it does in justified text, but research indicates readers don’t even care about the letters between the beginning and ending of a word. If you can read the following text, how distracting can white-space gaps between words possibly be?
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer
in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht
the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses
and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid
deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Again and again every justification (pun intended) that typographers use to reject two spaces after a period fails to hold up. Again and again the issue becomes one of simple preference. Even my belief that paragraph formatting plays a key role in determining when a single space or doubled space should be used reflects my preferences.
What’s ironic in all this is that even though typography has been heavily predisposed to hole-exploding justified text in all mediums for decades, that predominance is now fading for reasons that have nothing to do with typography. Because HTML only recognizes a single blank space, there are no spongy, flexible-width spaces by which HTML text can be justified. As a result, more and more of what’s written and published today appears in flush-left, ragged right paragraphs. (Yet again, readers are apparently oblivious to the momentous impact of this sea change.)
To see what used to be the norm in the newspaper business, take a look at these examples of narrow, justified columns on the front page of the New York Times. Now try to envision the text on the home page of the Times’ website. Can you see the text in your mind? Do you have a memory of the difference between the physical paper and the electronic version? Do you care? Do you know anyone who cares? If someone told you they cared so deeply about the evolution of newspaper copy from justified to ragged-right HTML that it rivaled the hatred they had for people who used two spaces after a period, what would you think of that person?
Two Spaces and HTML
The adoption of ragged-right formatting is being compelled by the use of HTML and browsers, despite an overwhelming historical preference among typographers for justified text. As a result, fewer distracting holes now appear in the text we all read, yet typographers do not seem to be celebrating this evolution with vigor — even as they continue to attack holes caused by adding a second space after a period. Geeks are driving changes in typography that eclipse anything I can think of in the past five hundred years, yet somehow that’s not a big deal. But putting two spaces after a period is still an atrocity.
Typographers may oppose two-spaces after a period for dubious aesthetic reasons, but they have no direct power to intervene. Whether using a typewriter or word-processing software, the option was always left to the writer. But the internet age has changed the status quo. Because browsers do not recognize a second blank space even if it’s typed, the geeks are actually limiting choice in the matter.
Personally, I believe HTML should allow two spaces after a period, or provide a special character that adds a bit more width to the gap after a period. My own typographic aesthetic says the space between sentences should be larger than the space between words, if only to emphasize the distinction. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell a brain-dead machine how to automatically differentiate between the end of a sentence and something like “Ms. Baxter”.
To add a special-width character writers would have to hand-code the character inline, rather than having it applied automatically. As crazy as that sounds, something similar is already being done by many people who write in HTML, and quite often it’s being done in complete contravention of recognized best practices. (By which I mean demonstrably valuable best practices, as opposed to mere aesthetic preference.)
The most common way to add additional spaces to a line is to use a non-breaking space [ ]. This special HTML character forces the inclusion of blank spaces that would ordinarily be ignored by the browser.
Using non-breaking spaces to format an HTML page is possible, and was done with abandon in the old days, but in the modern context it’s a mistake. (Formatting should be handled by CSS as much as possible.) Despite this general prohibition, however, I use non-breaking spaces on my site for specific reasons, including some instances when I add a ‘read more’ link to the first section of a long post.
Here’s what that looks like in HTML:
<a href=”link”>Read more</a>
And here’s how that code appears in a browser:
…blah blah. Read more
Those two forced spaces keep the ‘read more’ link from moving too close to the period. If I use only a single space after the period, as typographers insist I should, I think it looks too crowded, if not also confusing:
…blah blah. Read more
Back in the day, on my old website, I hand-coded each sentence break with two non-breaking spaces to improve readability. Because the background was dark and the text was light, I felt that adding a bit more room after each sentence-ending period improved the reader’s ability to find their way through a paragraph. (My thinking was that the larger gaps after each period provided reference points for the eye.)
Here’s a sample from that old site, showing periods followed by a rounded ‘G’, umbrella ‘T’, and splayed ‘A’.
Personally I think the space between the period and the capital ‘T’ is too big, but using one space made the gap between the period and the foot of the ‘A’ too small. I opted for clarity in all instances rather than tolerating that too-close gap with the ‘A’. In retrospect, because I was hand-coding each sentence break I could have used only only one space with the ‘T’, but at the time I opted for consistency.
There is no coherent rationale for insisting on one space after a period, and anybody who tells you otherwise is either parroting someone’s dogma or lying to your face. If you want to use two spaces after a period it’s your choice.
I believe that two spaces after a period works — indeed is preferable — for unjustified text. I believe it doesn’t work for justified text. Those are the general rules I live by.
If there’s a modern standard it tends to be one space, but that’s almost entirely the result of the way in which browsers handle multiple spaces. There never has been, and never will be, a professional typographical study that conclusively demonstrates that a single space better serves the writer-reader relationship.
Still, the fact that there is a quasi-standard is enough to send some writers into paroxysms of fear. Many writers worry that a small, niggling variance from the norm will either brand them an amateur or reveal them to be the amateur they actually are. (We’re all amateurs when we start.) This fear is the weakness that typographical fundamentalists exploit as a means of spreading their toxic views.
In closing his own post, Felici addresses this very point, and makes it clear that he himself does not believe using two spaces after a period is inherently wrong:
Modern spacing aesthetics aside, the main reason not to use two word spaces (or an em space) between sentences is that people will think you’re doing it out of ignorance. It will be perceived as a mistake. You may know better, but you’ll have a hard time convincing everyone else.
I don’t disagree with Felici. The publishing world seems to have more than its share of pedantic bullies who enjoy nothing more than punishing writers whose preferences differ from their own. I can’t promise that an editor or agent or other publishing gatekeeper won’t seize upon the use of two spaces after a period as a means of denying you publication. What I can promise is that if someone is willing to pass on your writing because you prefer two spaces after a period, that person is going to make your life a living hell for a thousand additional reasons, all of them couched in expertise, and all of them equally grounded in personal preference.
The fact remains that the number of people who have ever been even remotely inconvenienced — not bothered, but actually hindered — by two spaces after a period, is 862. And the great if not vast majority of those people were paid to work on the text that deeply offended them, so they got to cry all the way to the bank.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, few people ever notice whether one or two spaces has been used after a period. We know this to be true because if two spaces actually did interrupt the writer-reader relationship, the problem would have been resolved a thousand years ago.
As a final footnote, five days after originally publishing his attack on good, honest, two-space loving writers everywhere, Manjoo deleted his opening graph and appended his post with the following:
Correction, Jan. 18, 2011: This article originally asserted that—in a series of e-mails described as “overwrought, self-important, and dorky”—WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange used two spaces after every period. Assange actually used a monospace font, which made the text of his e-mails appear loose and uneven.
Being factually wrong about everything? Paycheck. Two spaces after a period? Crime.
– Mark Barrett