The great space debate – one or two spaces after a period?

One English usage debate I thought was solved over a decade ago was the disagreement over whether to put one or two spaces after a period when composing on a keyboard. I always had used two spaces, but when doing curriculum development as a consultant, the editorial staff of the company insisted on the one-space practice; in fact, it was part of their in-house style manual—something writers encounter with editors and publishers, as I’ve mentioned also in these blog pages. My personal preference of course gave way to the company standards.

We’ve talked about the importance of the period and other end punctuation in demarking the boundaries of a sentence – it tells us when we’ve reached the end of one unit of thought. Along with capitalization and spacing, we saw in the post “Why Study Grammar?” that punctuation aids communication. For instance, how would we read the phrase NOWHEREISWATER? Adding capitalization and a period would show that it is a sentence, and the choices you made about spacing would make a difference to you if you were in a desert.

The debate about spacing after period has not been settled. The discussion continues in numerous online blogs and discussions, as well as in a recent number of newspaper and journal articles, including one by James Hookway in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in June 2020. Sometimes described as #TeamOneSpace and #TeamTwoSpace, proponents often have very strong feelings, shown by Paul Grondahl, Director of the NYS Writers Institute and a staff writer at the Albany Times Union. He Tweeted a portion of Hookway’s piece with the query “One space or two?” – discovering that “grammarian passions flare,” almost as intensely as they do with discussions of the Oxford comma.

As Grondahl and others point out, this is often a generational divide. People who prefer one space (as my employer’s editors did) generally have grown up with typing on computers using word-processing programs which use proportionally spaced fonts:  the spacing between characters are automatically adjusted to accommodate the varying width of letters, including the spacing between sentences.

People who grew up or prefer using typewriters usually favor two spaces. Typewriters are mechanical and use monospace font – which gives every character the same space on the page, so a narrow character like i gets as much as a wider character like w. And, monospace makes it hard to distinguish the end of a sentence without adding the extra space.

Indeed, some reading studies show that two spaces after periods help facilitate processing a text, as reported in “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period,” a 2018 article by James Hamblin in The Atlantic.

Mary Cullen in a blog on the topic writes that many copywriters and marketing writers feel strongly about the issue, preferring the one space because the extra space between sentences “creates a river of white” in a document – which is also why space-conscious newspapers – which long ago dropped the Oxford comma – require the one space also. For instance, Hookway asserts that The WSJ switched to one space in its print edition “decades ago.”

Cullen also reports on a poll they conducted in which 36% of the people “wrongly” answered that two spaces were correct. However, a 2018 study at Skidmore College – cited in both Hookway’s and Hamblin’s pieces – showed that about a third of the sample subjects naturally typed two spaces after the period. And they also found the two-space paragraphs easier to read.
Grondahl writes, “Typographers have been arguing about this since Gutenberg’s time. The space controversy roiled printers and publishers across France in the late 1800s. U.S. magazine, newspaper and book publishers tried to strike a compromise in the 1950s by using one and a half interword spaces – creating the awkward ‘en quad’ typographical space sliver.”

Typewriters have supporters, though, with some writers collecting and sometimes using the mechanical tools to compose their work. Typewriter.com reports that the actor, director, and producer Tom Hanks is a passionate typewriter collector, accumulating about 250 since the 1970s with about “90% of them . . . in perfect working order.” Hank loves that typewriters “are meant to do one thing and one thing only and with the tiniest amount of effort, maintenance, it will last a thousand years.” He wrote a collection of short stories entitled Uncommon Type, in which typewriters, each with its own personality, plays a supporting role.

He even developed an app for the iPad called Hanx Writer which recreates the experience of a manual typewriter, apparently mimicking the click of typing and the ding! of the carriage return bell. In his forward to the book Typewriters, Hanks list, writing the 11 reasons [“convincing and comical”] you should use a typewriter. (Also available on the Chronicle Book Blog.) However, though he uses his typewriters for memos, shopping lists, and reminders, he uses a computer for writing longer works. And he doesn’t state where he stands of the one or two space debate.

Jennifer Gonzalez asserts that “[u]nless you are typing on an actual typewriter, you no longer have to put two spaces after a period.” Most style manuals rule in favor of one space, including the Chicago Manuel of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), the Modern Language Association Handbook (MLA), and now (since 2019) the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual (APA), a holdout for decades. The APA does allow for the 2-space option if required by instructors or non-APA publishers. Even Microsoft, which used to leave the choice of one space or two up to the writer, has set its default (as of April 24, 2020) as a single space after periods so that Word will highlight two spaces as an error. (Writers can go in and set a different preference in Word if they chose.)

Of course, a period is not the only mark of end punctuation. The others are also the question mark and the exclamation point. The choice of end punctuation depends on the effect you want to make. Consider these three sentences from The St. Martin’s Handbook:

Am I tired.

Am I tired?

Am I tired!

The end punctuation guides readers in how to read each sentence. As the guide states, the first sentence should be read “as a dry, matter-of-fact statement; the second as a puzzled or perhaps ironic query; the last as a note of exasperation (366). The rule for spacing after the question mark and the exclamation point is the same for the period.

One space or two? Some usage experts predict it will take about 10 to 20 years before the two-space preference dies out, about the time when older writers are gone and millennials and subsequent generations hold sway.

FYI – Some disciplines still use monospaced fonts, including tablature music, a form of musical notation that indicates instrument fingering rather than musical pitches. For instance, in music for guitar, each line in a tablature represents a guitar string, which requires that chords played across multiple strings be tabbed in vertical sequence, a feat accomplished only with the predictability of fixed width. Both screenplays and stage play scripts traditionally use monospaced fonts. The industry standard is 12 point Courier, a monospaced font. A tradition holds that on this format one page of script will take one minute of screen or stage time and this makes it easier to judge from the number of pages the time a script will last. (“Monospace Font”)

(Resources: James Hookway, “The Typographical Space Race Tightens Up” (pay to access); Paul Grondahl, “One Space or Two?”; James Hamblin, “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period”; Mary Cullen, “How Many Spaces Should be After a Period”; Typewriter.com;  Tom Hanks article on Chronicle Book Blog; The St. Martin’s Handbook; Jennifer Gonzalez, “Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!”)

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