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I’m sorry, but no. It’s a lousy polemic. Here’s its structure:

  1. SEO-friendly statement of controversy
  2. Presentation of opinion A. Assertion that people who hold it are rubes.
  3. Presentation of opinion B. Invocation of authority.
  4. History lesson! Discussion of old technology; no mention of enforcement of author’s preferred orthodoxy by newer technology (e.g. HTML rendering multiple spaces as one)
  5. Rumination on beauty. Grecian urns, etc.

For now let’s ignore the ignore the bullying nature of this argument (it should be obvious to anyone that those of us who believe in two spaces are a minority that’s relentlessly and mercilessly persecuted by the bloodthirsty masses, both through jeremiads like Manjoo’s and through the technological eradication of our ability to express our beliefs). Which of the points in the above argument are rhetorically meaningful?

Only point 3 really carries any weight with me. I’ll take Manjoo’s word that all typographers like a single space between sentences. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to arguments from authority, being the big-state-loving paternalist that I am. But, with apologies to friends and colleagues of mine who care passionately about this stuff, I lost my patience with the typographically-obsessed community when they started trying to get me to pay attention to which sans-serif fonts were being used anachronistically on Mad Men.

I love you guys, but you’re crazy. On questions of aesthetic preference there’s no particular reason that normal people should listen to a bunch of geeky obsessives who spend orders of magnitude more time on these issues than average. It’s like how you probably shouldn’t listen to me when I tell you not to use .doc files or that you might want to consider a digital audio player with Ogg Vorbis support. I strongly believe those things, but even I know they’re pointless and arbitrary for everyone who doesn’t consider “Save As…” an opportunity for political action.

Nor should we assume that just because typographers believe earnestly in the single space that their belief is held entirely in good faith. They’re drunk on the awesome power of their proportional fonts, and sure of the cosmic import of the minuscule kerning decisions that it is their lonely duty to make. Of course they don’t want lowly typists exercising their opinions about letter spacing. Those people aren’t qualified to have opinions!

(For what it’s worth, I don’t think you rabble should be using Flash or Silverlight or anything other than plain text in your emails. You can’t be trusted with it! And, not that this motivates me or typographers at all of course (we just want what’s best for you), but when you do such things it makes my job slightly harder.)

Manjoo’s argument about beauty, like all such arguments, is easy enough to dismiss: I disagree. I find it easier to read paragraphs that are composed of sentences separated by two spaces. Perhaps this is because I, like most technologists, spend most of my time working with (quite lovely!) fixed-width fonts for practical reasons. But there’s also a deeper beauty to the two space rule — a sort of mathematical beauty. Let me explain.

Consider the typical structure of writing. Letters are assembled into words, which turn into phrases, which are arranged into sentences — at the same time being assigned to speakers, a neat trick — which are then combined into paragraphs.

It’s a chemical process, a perfect and infinitely flexible hierarchical system that should command our admiration. Being able to rationally examine, disassemble and interrogate the final product is a mark of the system’s beauty. Anything less is settling for a sort of holistic mysticism.

It’s disrespectful to let writing’s constituent elements bleed into one another through imprecise demarcations. If you see me “making mistakes with comma placement”, please rest assured that I’m doing it deliberately. In most cases the comma doesn’t belong to the phrase delimited by the quotation marks that enclose it. Placing an exclamation point or question mark to the left or right of a close-quote is a weighty decision! That we violate the atomic purity of quotations with injected commas is an outrage.

And though I don’t get quite as worked up about it, the same sort of thinking motivates my belief in the double space. Sentences deserve to be clearly delineated, but because of the complications of quotation, ellipses, interrogatives and exclamations (among others), there is no reliable punctuation that can be counted on as a terminator for sentences. Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words. The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.

To operationalize it: I can split any of the paragraphs in this post (as composed, not as rendered) into its constituent sentences with a simple line of Python:

[cc lang=”python”] for x in paragraph.split(‘ ‘):
print repr(x)

“And though I don’t get quite as worked up about it, the same sort of thinking motivates my belief in the double space.”
“Sentences deserve to be clearly delineated, but because of the complications of quotation, ellipses, interrogatives and exclamations (among others), there is no reliable punctuation that can be counted on as a terminator for sentences.”
“Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words.”
“The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.”
[/cc]

Further disassembly is easy from there. I can’t do that with the degenerate text that Manjoo prefers. As a journalist who makes his living on consumers’ pageviews it’s perhaps understandable that he would deliberately complicate news consumption for his non-human audience. But I hope the rest of us can make our aesthetic decisions a little less selfishly.

About the author

Tom Lee

109 comments

  • It galls me that anybody cares enough about this to lecture others on it, although if pressed I have to agree with Mr. Lee. I honestly never even heard of this one-space shit before

  • Emcee: no, it’s not. Browsers turn multiple spaces into single spaces — that’s what I was alluding to in the opening of the post. If you look at the page source you’ll see that I use two spaces when I write.

  • The double space after a period makes perfect sense. We give a single space after a comma, which a smaller break in the flow of thought. The extra space at the end of a sentence reinforces the fact that we have come to the end of a particular thought, and doesn’t give the feeling that the following thought is tripping over the feet of the first.

    (Will this comment be reformatted to show single spaces after each sentence, I wonder?)

  • For many years I thought I was the only one who resisted the rule about commas inside quotation marks. It’s been so lonely. Thank you.

  • Bill, you’re not alone. I’ve even heard legends of a safe zone, a place where people can be free to keep commas outside, where they belong. I think it’s called Britain. But these may just be myths.

  • The single space is the typographic standard for a reason. If the next novel you read had two spaces after periods throughout, the text would appear uneven, and it would be distracting to many. Most people take this convention for granted, but some who learned to type 30 years ago have problems unlearning a bad habit. However, it’s mostly professional publications geeks who worry about this stuff.

  • BTW, Tom is right. In Britain, convention is to place a comma outside the quotation mark, if that is the logical position for it.

  • I had no idea this controversy existed.

    As I’ve aged I’ve developed a ‘devil may care’ attitude about many things from refusing to stop at red lights with no other cars in sight to punctuation marks being placed inside quotation marks that have no relationship whatsoever to the quoted text.

    Life on the edge.

    However, I’m not a complete rebel. I was taught to touch type (less than 30 years ago!) by a 40 year old virgin school teacher when no one used the word “keyboarding” and she insisted (with the kind of bitchiness that only a 40 year old virgin can muster) I double space after the punctuation mark to end a sentence. And even today my behavior is reinforced and rewarded by both my iPhone and office Blackberry which are nice enough to insert a period every time I double space. It would be far to much trouble at this late date to undo my muscle memory that inserts a period followed by a double space without my even thinking about it.

  • The Law employs double spacing. See, e.g., http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-907.pdf. I would advise Mr. Manjoo to think twice when next he considers impugning the punctual preference of such a weighty institution. If not, there are ways to coerce compliance (see Judge Dredd).
    On the comma issue, your cause is just and true Tom, but I can’t just up and change something that’s so aesthetically ingrained overnight. When I read English newspapers, I always notice their fouolish comma placement.

  • “In Britain, convention is to place a comma outside the quotation mark, if that is the logical position for it.”

    Periods too. (Though they call them “full stops” over there.) Makes perfect sense.

  • “The Law employs double spacing.”

    Because the typeface used in legal documents is Courier, which is a monospaced face (uses the same amount of space for every character.) Like a typewriter. Double-spacing was a typewriter convention.

    Seriously, look around. Any magazine, any newspaper, any book, any website. Single spaces after periods, everywhere. The first thing any typesetter does with a new doc is a find/replace for double-spaces.

  • “The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.”

    Here’s an even more elegant and subtle solution: a period, one space, and a capital letter to begin the new sentence. We’ve just saved a keystroke on every sentence.

  • @Joel Wheeler: Here’s an even more elegant and subtle solution: a period, one space, and a capital letter to begin the new sentence.

    Really? I don’t think so! Perhaps some sentences don’t end with a period?

  • I’m disappointed to learn that you’re on the wrong side of this issue. But FWIW, this is the least-unconvincing argument for two-space heresy I’ve read. And you almost persuaded me to start putting my punctuation marks outside of quotation marks.

  • Extra space is designed into a computer font, which is why you don’t need to type two spaces. Moral superiority has no place in this discussion, but a basic understanding of type design and history does.

  • Oh Chris. It’s good that you’re here.

    .doc is problematic because, though its market dominance has led to decent(ish) support, it is at its core a proprietary format. It’s difficult for developers to work with; at one point its use implied that the recipient had to possess a pricy license. And even though Open Office makes that no longer the case, complacency when faced with such formats allows the pattern to repeat.

    Much better to use Open Document (.odf) or better — if you aren’t using advanced word processing features — to just use .txt, .rtf, .html or markdown or one of the many other ways of transmitting text in a license-free manner.

  • As a lifelong two-spacer, I had no idea this was as big a deal as it was. I had no idea I was a troublesome rebel and borderline social outcast. How exciting! Is there a secret handshake?

  • Bob and Tom, thanks for your support on the comma issue. It all makes sense now: although I live the United States, I was born and grew up in Australia.

    Don, just the other day I was driving through an endless series of stop signs in Salt Lake City, with no other cars in sight. One of the stop signs turned out to be a red light. I dutifully stopped, then drove on through without thinking.

    I feel like I’ve discovered a community.

  • I’m late to this, obviously, but no one seems to have addressed the historical reality of typesetting with more than a single space after sentences, but less than twice a word space. This was commonly done up to the 1930s or so (and called, ahem, “regular spacing”). Typewriting emulated this as best it could by using two spaces. Revisionists used “French spacing” — which has now become normal. To me, it is very aggravating to know that modern computers could easily handle the in-between space, but the, um, doubtless well-intentioned folk who crippled our typographic vocabulary a generation ago seem to have destroyed the possibility that modern technology could improve rather than cheapen the process.

  • I’ve heard this B.S. before. You know what this is all about? It’s all about “right-brain” people needing very, very badly to feel smarter than left-brain people about SOMETHING. People who use a single space at the end of a sentence are lazy at best and mere contrarians at worst. End of story. This idea that typographers, en masse, prefer the single space to the double space is a complete fiction. It started with ONE right-brained graphic design idiot in a position of influence who then convinced everyone who trained under him that he was right. This is nothing but a very dumb idea that has been propagated among people too gullible to know otherwise.

  • As I and my eyes continue to age, commas and periods are starting to look more and more alike, or even to vanish entirely during rapid reading. More and more I appreciate the double-space’s assistance in parsing the hierarchical structure that Tom Lee astutely highlights.

  • I think the single spacers started with the person who realized a space at the end of a sentence could be sacrificed and readibility maintained yet publishing costs reduced because of the pages squeezed out of books, magazines and other printed materials. Thus a mostly harmless way of increasing profits by lowering costs.

    In my experience, it always comes down to money.

  • Bill, Bob, and Tom,

    Commas outside the quotation mark is also common among American lawyers, because it is more precise. However, I have learned that some clients will correct me, and for those I will do it the “correct way”.

  • I am also a writer who can’t (and won’t) give up the two spaces at the end of sentence formatting. Heck, even on my personal web page, I used HTML code to ensure there were two spaces at the end of each sentence. This became ingrained due to two classes I took in school: typing and shop. (Hey! Are we not supposed to put two spaces after colons any more?) “Shop?” you ask. I had a typesetting class in the 8th grade and we were taught to place two spaces at the end of each sentence. Perhaps it’s a typesetter vs. typographer issue. And there, in the previous sentence, you get what is, to me, one of the best justifications for two spaces at the end of a sentence. When you have an abbreviation in the middle of you sentence, e.g. Mr., Mrs., vs., etc., a single space follows as it is still one complete thought. Two spaces indicates the complete thought has ended and a new one is about to begin. The argument that a period followed by a space followed by a capital letter doesn’t necessarily mean a new sentence or thought has begun, does it, Mr. Wheeler? I certainly did not start a new thought between the “Mr.” and the “Wheeler” in the previous sentence despite the sentence, space, capital letter combination.

    Perhaps part of my insistence that two spaces follow the end of the sentence comes from the fact that I do a lot of work in theater, radio, and television. For people who have to read text aloud, the double space at the end of sentences helps us determine when to pause and to breath.

    And, as a side note, another excellent reason to give preference to .rtf format over .doc for document files is that because .doc files can contain macros with executable code that can spread viruses. In my many years on the internet (going back to Q-Link), I have had to deal with viruses on my computers only a few times, and most of those times could be traced back to infected .doc files that were given to me on floppy disks.

  • Tom,

    Thank you for comments about double-spacing after periods and commas outside of quotation marks. While I have always tried to follow the rules as best as I can remember them, some of them feel so unnatural. I never realized that web pages and the like removed my ingrained “double-spaced after a period” training. Perhaps there is a special rule for the ellipsis that is lurking out there. The punctuation rules for an ellipsis after a period at the end of a sentence just seems wrong. A space after the period and then the ellipsis?! Or maybe it is just I who has the problem. Oh well…

  • I absolutely agree that two spaces between sentences is more aesthetically pleasing than a single space. A single space tends to make everything seem to run together plus we grew up reading books with the double spacing and it’s jarring, to say the least, to make that change. It’s bad enough to have to become accustomed to TwoWords that are JammedTogether, in an ugliness unseen before the advent of the computer, without moving sentences closer together for no apparent reason (the result certainly doesn’t look better in any way). What’s next, the elimination of capital letters and punctuation altogether along with abolishing standardized spelling, so that everything can look and feel like texting on a cellphone, thus equalizing the playing field for the subliterate? I’m afraid that’s what we’re moving toward, and doing so rapidly. Moving sentences together is a step in that wrong direction.

  • I converted to a single-spacer after working on a project that involved the editing 1000s of documents received from the project’s army of contributors. Superficially, most of them used 2 spaces — except when they used only 1 space, or maybe 3. My work was simplified immensely by the 1-space rule and I’ve embraced it ever since. The fact that typographers endorse this approach is just a bonus. For me, the main benefit of 1 space is its practicality for most types of writing and editing work.

  • Am I missing something here?

    for x in paragraph.split(‘. ‘):

    works pretty well.

    So much for that argument.

    Spaces separate words, periods separate sentences.

  • Apropos of the one space/two space controversy, the typesetting program TeX used by most mathematicians puts more space between sentences than between words within a sentence, emulating the “regular spacing” described by pete. It doesn’t matter how many spaces you type after a period in the source document, or for that matter between words, since TeX replaces them with stretchable “glue”, which is larger and more stretchable for the space between sentences than for the space between words. The program then stretches lines to right justify them by stretching the glue (it also has complex algorithm for optimizing the line breaks over an entire paragraph). You can tell also tell it to use french spacing, or customize the glue any way you want. (If you have a period in the middle of a sentence, as in J Edkin’s examples, you indicate a hard space after it to override the normal behavior.)

    If you really want to waste some time this morning, you can read more about this at http://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/4705/double-space-between-sentences.

  • Chris, yes, you are missing something. Periods do not always separate sentences (elementary, Dr. Watson), and sentences do not always end in periods!

  • J Edkin (#31) – Doesn’t the fact that you didn’t bother to start a new sentence when you read “Mr. Wheeler” indicate that the single-space after a period is not as problematic as you’re implying? If you can intuitively grasp the writer’s intention based on context, then it seems to me the lack of a second space after the end of a sentence is no real detriment.

    Linguistically, spoken language is not nearly as neat and tidy as typed language implies, often even lacking pauses between words (which is why trying to listen to a stream of conversation in a language not native to you can sound like slurred or uninterrupted gibberish). Once again, it is our intuitive grasp of grammatical structure that allows us to interpret contextual clues in order to garner meaning from a spoken (or written) sentence. Any typographical habit that does not disrupt the ability to understand this context is permissible – just as it’s permissible now to use a hyphen or double-hyphen instead of an em-dash when typing in blog comment boxes. (See, you weren’t confused just then, were you?)

    Aesthetically, I suspect it’s all just a matter of taste. Personally, I think double-spaces after sentences look a bit silly and amateurish.

  • All well and good, but let me call to your attention the subject-verb disagreement in the last sentence of paragraph one. I assume, since it hasn’t been corrected, that no one has pointed it out yet.

  • To say you don’t care that typographers insist on a single space is fine, but it’s like saying that you don’t care that professional violinists tune their instrument properly or cooks don’t put ketchup on sashimi. It’s all a matter of taste, but you’ll still be considered a boor by those who have bothered to cultivate their taste a bit.

  • If two spaces after a sentence is bad aesthetics, you write the same display software that manages the width of the proportional font characters to show only one space regardless of how many there are, exactly as your web browser does. It’s not like these are physical spaces inserted by hand in a block of metal type moving over the next character; it’s a trivial matter of programming. The typographer’s preference is accordingly actively irrelevant; they should be talking to the people writing the display software, not complaining about the people inserting double spaces.

    In the meantime, the double-space convention greatly aids computer processing of text. No, “a period, one space, and a capital letter to begin the new sentence” doesn’t work, because “for x in paragraph.split(‘. ‘):” converts “Dr. Watson’s visit to the U.S. Army base was in order to attend to Fr. Smith and Mrs. Jones.” into four sentences. Humans can handle the ambiguity; an algorithm requires vastly disproportionate complexity to do so.

    Double spaces also actively improve readability when, for whatever reason, the text must be displayed with each character taking the same width.

    Since we can trivially program the software to display a single space to human readers when using a proportional font, solving the aesthetics issue, while still using the (undisplayed) double space to unambiguously indicate sentence separation for computers and to optimize display when using fixed-width fonts, the double space is an unambiguously superior approach to sentence separation.

  • One space between sentences is correct (unless you’re using Courier or an actual typewriter). Of course you have the right to do it incorrectly if that’s your preference! Just don’t pretend you’re doing it correctly.

  • Ryan@40: is it? Taking you to mean the first paragraph with more than one sentence, the verb (“are”) refers to “the points”, one or more of which may be correct.

    The s/v agreement is off in the last sentence of graf two, but (though I doubt I thought of it while composing the sentence) I think it reads as a colloquialism that I prefer to keep. The correct version seems a little stilted and impersonal, which is especially problematic since the sentence comes right before a statement of affection for the subject.

  • One space between sentences is correct (unless you’re using Courier or an actual typewriter).

    Which means, in the world of electronic text, you can’t ever do it correctly? You see, your reader’s software always gets to decide whether to display the text in Courier or not, no matter what font you specified when writing it.

    The only way to get the aesthetics consistently right is to program the correct aesthetics into the displaying software. As soon as you have the single-or-double spacing decisions in the raw data dictate the rendering, you’ve created a system that will inevitably fail.

    If I type two spaces, and it shows up as two spaces in Time New Roman when you read it, I didn’t do anything wrong; your display software screwed up. Go lecture the people who programmed your software.

  • Of course, a Pythonista would have strong views on the semantics of spaces. #insert emotion

    Passionate defenders of the rule go so far as to declare it a rule of grammar. Their opponents just do not want to see blank snakes running through their copy. It is a lovely rule because it is so arbitrary, so it’s ever been thus.

    Few of the debaters on either side are both old enough to remember the origin of the rule and to have had hands-on experience applying it. The rule exists for the same reason as the QWERTY keyboard; its purpose is to slow down typing.

    Mechanical typewriters were prone to jamming. When you press the key, the arm flies up and strikes the ribbon and then needs time to fall back out of the way for the next arm. The keyboard layout mitigates the problem by arraying the arms corresponding to common letters, such as the vowels, further apart. Because the keys were mechanically linked to the arms, they also need to be kept apart. Keys that are physically close together, accordingly, are more likely to jam.

    The key jam problem is acute when the complication of shifting is added. The end of the arm has both the upper and lower case type. Which strikes the ribbon depends on the position of the carriage, raised with the shift key. The sequence . SHIFT key to start a new sentence has more parts in motion. The period key arm is falling, the carriage is rising, the space key is moving the carriage to the left. If you add to that ballet the next letter, to begin the sentence, a jam is likely to follow. A second space allows the period arm to come to rest and the carriage to fully rise.

    When the old office Remingtons and their cousins gave way to electric typewriters, the second space rule followed because jamming was still a problem. Even though an electric motor was doing the heavy lifting, the arms still needed time to get out of the way. When the ubiquitous IBM Selectric replaced the arms with the ping pong ball, jamming became much less of a problem and what jamming did occur had nothing to do with ending one sentence and beginning another. No carriage moved, all the shifting between upper and lower cases took place by rotating the ball.

    Yet the rule persisted.

    Comes then the PC with the dot matrix printer and the daisy wheel printer and the rule persists. After all, Courier 12 point (computer) looked exactly like Courier 10 pitch (typewriter), so the same paragraph on one should look identical on the other, with two spaces following the punctuation at the end of a sentence.

    Arrives next justified paragraphs by inserting enough spaces anywhere they fit to take up all the positions in the line. But now there’s a problem because it no longer looks like there is more space at the end of the sentence. So, part of proof reading becomes finding those and inserting another (logical) space to maintain the appearance of conforming to the rule.

    Fully proportional spacing and fonts come along and make the problem subside because two spaces now look almost right compared to the variable width space on the rest of the line.

    So, what began as a workaround for a contraption invented over 100 years ago persists almost 50 years after the contraptions were replaced. It’s as if we insisted on turning the non-existent crank handle on the front grill of our cars before getting in to drive.

  • “In Britain, convention is to place a comma outside the quotation mark, if that is the logical position for it.”

    Score one for Britain.

    The American rule has always seemed incorrect to me.

  • “One space between sentences is correct (unless you’re using Courier or an actual typewriter).”

    Or unless you are composing a document in a word processor that you plan to print to paper or electronically distribute via some self-contained format like PDF…

By Tom Lee