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everyone has a right to their beliefs

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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

  • Two questions:

    1. Does application play a role? For example, newspapers want to squeeze as much material as possible into limited available space, thus rendering double spaces after sentences wasteful. Furthermore, the right- and left-justification of newspaper columns is likely to expand spaces (albeit both between words and between sentences) and thereby create the impression of quasi-double-spaces between sentences without formally inserting extra (wasteful) spaces.

    2. Do post-sentence-single-spacers really notice (negatively) double spacing to the same degree we post-sentence-double-spacers notice (negatively) single spacing? That is, are the critiquers more the exception than the rule (perhaps suggesting the critquers feel more guilty than the critiqued)?

  • The resolution of the dilemma is implicit in the argument.

    Web browsers collapse multiple spaces: this is fine and I have no complaint. So it is clearly possible for two spaces composed in a text editor to be programmatically rendered during layout as a single space or, as in TeX, a space-and-more.

    On paper, this is easy when one uses the right tool for the job: emacs for editing and InDesign for typography, plus some scripted preprocessing in between.

    But only the lucky few experience such Platonic purity. In the degenerate, two-in-one shampoo-and-conditioner world through which the masses thrash and bellow, Microsoft Word deserves blame as a blunt instrument that muddies thought and smears ugliness on the page.

  • This would have been a more convincing argument had you put two spaces after your periods.

  • […] The debate on whether one space or two after the end of a sentence may seem silly, and certainly there are respected experts on both sides of the issue, but this article really breaks it down for me — of course it’s a programmer’s viewpoint which I’ll be more likely to be sympathetic with. But broadly put — if a sentence is followed with two spaces, you have semantic marking within the document to unambiguously demarcate sentences (and if you think about it, there’s quite a few ways to conclude a sentence with assorted punctuation marks and what have you that make almost any other way impossible to accurately deconstruct). If the program reading your material can accurately parse out the sentences, then it can display them properly in any way you choose regardless of the display format (fixed font or not and so on): everyone has a right to their beliefs. […]

  • This post uses single spaces not through irony (though it is ironic), but because browsers automatically convert two spaces into one space. If you look at the author’s HTML code, he uses double spaces. If two spaces is technologically superior, why would browsers (presumably coded by technologists) almost uniformly change two spaces to one?

    This post’s single-spacing furthers the opposing viewpoint: you read single spaces every day, and you get along fine. Almost everything you read on the Web uses one space. Everything you read that is professionally printed (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines) uses one space. Just because two-spacing is habit doesn’t make it correct.

  • This blog post uses double-spaces. Look at the HTML source of the page and you’ll see them quite regularly and loyally between every adjoining sentence pair.

    Web browsers, however, collapse multiple spaces into a single space when rendering (as that’s simply part of how HTML works), effectively rendering all of the author’s diligent double-spaces as single-spaces.

  • ““Save As…” an opportunity for political action.” YES YES YES! This statement alone will make me start following your blog! Thank you!

  • “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. ”

    I love this so much!

  • as Damien points out, single space after a period is how you see it in books, magazines, professional brochures, and the like. And with good reason. Two spaces after a word is from the days of typewriters, which no one uses any more.

    If someone’s argument to use two spaces is because that’s what they’re used to due to some clinging to tradition, I would like to ask this: Do you hit a return after you find your sentence is near the right edge of your text area like you would on a typewriter? Or do you just keep typing knowing the words will automatically fall to the next line. My guess is that you choose to do the latter, even though that’s not how you were taught to type in a typewriting class way back when.

    The world has modernized. It’s time to abandon typewriter rules like two spaces after a period and progress to modern typesetting standards which tell us you need only one space after a period. You’ll find your text will look a lot more professional and your words will be taken more seriously. Plus they’ll be easier to read since two spaces cause a slight jerkiness to the eyes when they scan the type while reading.

  • Something I found very intriguing is your recommendation not to use .doc files, why? Everybody in my office uses them (even though we all have MS Word 2007).

  • John N says “You’ll find your text will look a lot more professional and your words will be taken more seriously.”

    I don’t my words taken more seriously by the type of person who only takes my words seriously if they appease some stupid mono-space rule.

  • “Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words. The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.”

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Unfortunately, this argument–which seems so compelling to me–has gotten me absolutely nowhere whenever I’ve made it.

  • I think you’re fighting an uphill battle.

    For publishing (both print and web), one space is now the norm. The Chicago Manual of Style, AP Style Guide, New York Times style guide and most of the other guides professional writers use specify one space after a period.

  • Jeez, you people need to get a grip: The fate of the world does NOT hang on whether you use one space or two after a fullstop/period. However, the MAIN reason we graphics people want everyone to stop using two spaces has nothing to do with aesthetics, an evil leftist conspiracy or the disappearance of Amelia Earhart: It’s about time and money.

    If extra spaces aren’t removed from a document, they’ll throw-off spacing in professional page layout programs, and that can not only look horrible, it can mess up the layout of the entire thing. So one must first make sure there are no extra spaces in a document before placing it in a layout and, if they’re there, we must remove them. We charge you for that because it takes us time to make your document usable.

    So, if you don’t mind paying more than you need to and have money to burn, don’t worry about it. But if you don’t want to waste money, use the modern convention of ONE space after a fullstop/period. Either way, I guarantee the world will keep turning. Not sure how it’ll affect the mystery of Amelia Earhart, though.

  • So Arthur’s argument is that we need to use one space because two spaces will “throw-off spacing in professional page layout programs.” I have 3 things to say about that:
    1. Get a better professional page layout program. If HTML can automatically render 2 spaces as 1, why can’t these “professional” layout programs do the same?
    2. What if I have no intention of ever having my writing appear in a book, magazine, or other printed material? Should I still have to worry about causing you graphics people a little extra work when you will never see my writing anyway? I think not.
    3. People were told to use 2 spaces because of the fixed-width fonts that typewriters used. That was a technology issue that was eventually solved. Now these “professional page layout programs” have a technology issue with 2 spaces. This issue will also be solved someday, if it hasn’t already. We shouldn’t let technology cause us to change what we consider to be the correct way of writing or punctuating.

    I think some people here are missing the point. The author is not saying that we should use 2 spaces because that’s what we’re used to. He’s saying that 2 spaces is a better delimiter of sentences because it helps to separate thoughts. A single space separates words within a sentence, which means that the thought has not changed. When you see 2 spaces between a sentence, you prepare yourself for a different thought. Personally, I disagree with the typographers about this. I think 2 spaces makes the paragraph more readable, not less.

  • Well, Henry:

    1. You may want to take that up with the software companies because that’s their issue. Most have nothing in common with HTML.

    2. Like I said, the world will keep turning even if you used a hundred spaces. Do what you want.

    3. The technology fixes so far remove extra spaces and convert them to one space after a full stop. There’s no reason to think things will go backward.

    I did get the author’s point, but I disagree with it. However, in the overall scheme of things, neither my opinion nor the author’s nor anyone else’s matter in the slightest. In fact, I’d say that this has GOT to be one of the dumbest argument I’ve ever seen on the Internet. I cannot understand why some people are so animated about this subject. I use one space every time. Others don’t. But if the divide over that is this intense and ardent, is it any wonder we can’t bridge religious and political divisions?

  • I was a professional proofreader and copy editor during four years of my life (a long time ago, to be sure), and I am completely unable to look at a page with single-space sentence separators without yearning for my green pencil. Note that much of that time what I was editing was set type, with proportional spacing. Two spaces in set type was the norm, and it was what I was taught at the U.S. Library of Congress, where I learned to be an editor. So I’m skeptical about the typewriter origin of the two-space rule. I will continue to use two spaces.

    However, I must take SERIOUS issue with the idea of the (properly placed) comma inside quotation marks as somehow sullying the quote. Come on — commas ALWAYS precede the close quote. It looks really silly otherwise, and to do it otherwise is . . . well . . . wrong.

    This stuff matters. Really it does.

  • I could go into how “text color” — the uniformity of the gray value of the text — is improved by consistent spacing (which includes good hyphenation as well). But there’s a simpler reason it is a mistake:

    Your double-spaced text needs to be corrected before it is published.

    If you are not intending something for publication, I suppose you can do whatever you like. Knock yourself out in your amateurish way. That’s not pejorative, since it literaly amateurish when you don’t follow professional convetions. Like you could deliberately talk using poor grammar (“Me likes to double space!”) or deliberately misspell everything as well. Why not defend writing in L33+ speak while you are at it. Or cAPITALIZING oNLY eVERYTHING bUT tHE fIRST wORD? Go ahead. But you just look like an idiot. That’s fine. We need sloppy messy idiocy in the world to make the polished stuff look even better.

    But anything intended for publication needs to be cleaned up, including added spaces. So why deliberately add something that needs to be deleted by someone else? It’s inefficient and just seems childish/churlish to refuse to follow a convention simply because you want to be argumentative.

  • As both a professional editor and a long-time student of psycholinguistics (the mental perception of spoken and written language) I can state that putting two spaces between sentences is much more reader-friendly when it come to fluent reading and making sense of sentence structure. With just a single space between sentences, one is obliged to concentrate more of one’s attention on determining where the sentence breaks are, thereby distracting from a free flow of the message of the text into one’s consciousness.

    The double space is a much more easily perceptible indicator of a sentence break than a full stop (=period), which is not an infallible indicator of a sentence break, as it is also used to signify an abbreviation. Similarly, capitalisation does not just signify the beginning of a new sentence, it is also used to designate proper nouns. Just take the following example of a single-space break:

    My friend Paul lives on St. Joseph St. Paul is active in his community.

    It takes some stopping and thinking to determine where the sentence break is meant to be. Compare the same two sentences with a double-space break:

    My friend Paul lives on St. Joseph St. [double space] Paul is active in his community.
    (I have inserted the term in brackets here as computers tend to change doubles to singles.)

    Granted, this may be a rare example, but it typifies the advantage of the double space between sentences.

  • HTML will convert not only two spaces to a single space, but also three, four, or a hundred spaces. It will also remove any spaces directly before or after a tag name in a text node. This is not a World-wide web Consortium stamp of approval for the single space argument, it is in deference to programmers so they may format their code however they want and not have it affect the display of the page.

  • Eliminate the evil double space! Sure, proportional spacing makes them unnecessary. Sure, the new rule is in most major style guides. Still not convinced?

    Consider over a lifetime how many thousands, if not millions, of unnecessary keystrokes your carpal-tunnels can avoid if you’ll simply stop adding unnecessary double spaces. If this isn’t compelling enough, consider how much collective file and server space is wasted unnecessarily by your millions of unnecessary spaces, the impact it has on the collective data streams, and now multiply that by millions of people just like you.

    I wonder how much all these extra spaces actually cost in the span of a year, in terms of the amount of time it takes to key the stroke, and the server and data stream costs. Surely some grad student will find out and report on this.

  • I heard the debate on Q last night. Before you spoke, I considered one space normal and two spaces kind of silly. Well, either Manjoo was really bad at debate or you were really convincing (or both) but I plan to consciously use two spaces from now on. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but the need for a more clear delineation does make sense, and punctuation is too vague due to changing context.

    Text with two spaces between sentences being described as “full of holes” was just a bizarre thing to hear, by the way.

  • Re: one space separates words, two spaces separate sentences

    This idea that bigger strings need bigger spacing is cute at best. The only thing that separates sentences is a full stop.

    The spacing after a full stop should be one space. Any extra space slows the eye down, and I am glad that modern browsers eliminate extra white-space. It greatly increases the readability (and skim-ability) of online text.

  • Thanks to Slate and you people here, this is now a major battle over at the message boards for the American Society of Journalists & Authors. As their web editor I’m holding forth for single spacing. But the opposition is counterattacking. The outcome is in doubt as smoke still obscures the battlefield. Some collateral damage occurred to a few semi-colons, and a side fight broke out over em-dashes versus n-dashes.

    For those of you who say the world will go on turning regardless, I say, Have you proof of this? These are monumental issues; The fate of the universe (or all the universes if you watch those TV science shows) may be in the balance.

    And for those of you saying you cannot believe we are all a-twitter over such trivia, believe it. It’s late January, we’ve already abandoned all those New Year resolutions, and we’re bored.

    As should be all too obvious.

  • Well said!

    I heard you on Q last night, and I was glad to hear another side of the debate that was well-reasoned. I have been using double-spaces for 26 years for the simple reason that my 9th grade typing teacher, Mrs. Sharkey, taught me to type that way, and in the intervening years, until my typographer friends started getting snotty about it, *no one told me not to*.

    I was aware that I “didn’t need an extra space after the period anymore”, but I was never told I mustn’t use it. “Don’t need to” is not a reason to stop doing something harmless. In any event, in my line of work, all of my writing gets rendered by browsers, so it really didn’t matter what I chose. (In addition, in my line of work I stare at text rendered in monospace fonts all day, so maybe that extra space *isn’t* irrelevant to me.)

    Hearing my typographer friends lament “I thought everybody knew not to do this” bothered me. Why would we know? Why would you assume that? I don’t assume anyone outside my field knows about best practices that do not pertain to them.

    Now, if your job involves writing things that will be professionally typeset, do your designer a favor and learn to type with one space. (Sure, it can be fixed with a quick search-and-replace, but it’s annoying to be doing that all day.) While you’re at, please learn to fix the curly-quote errors Word introduces (replacing word-initial apostrophes with open-single-quotes).

    So: there are arguments to be made either way, and preferring one side over the other does not make you defective. Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? If you ask a botanist, it’s a fruit; if you ask a cook, it’s a vegetable. Both are right, for their own specific reasons.

  • Isn’t technology supposed to rid us of these pesky issues? It would be very easy for there to be a browser option to acknowledge a double space for those who want it. A simply options that changes a single space to a double space when a sentence ending punctuation is followed by a single space.

    I think if typographers REALLY cared about these things, we’d adopt the musical staff in our writing. For most people, only one stave would be needed. Words can be written above, on, or below the line to imply inflection. Duration or syllables could be included, including rests. Singers use commas and ending punctuation to indicate natural points to take a breath, lest sentences and phrases run together. Then we can add volume and accents, and when a paragraph gets long and boring, you could make it interesting by moving the whole paragraph up a semitone.

    Or we could all just learn tolerance and go with whatever floats the boat, but I think the musical idea is more likely to happen.

  • The fact that all text on the web and all professionally typeset text uses single space should be sufficient evidence that it is proper. Sure this is not a life and death topic but double spaces sure is annoying.

  • I find it amusing that those who are opposed to the double space after sentences are almost to a man hitting return twice (doublespacing?) when it’s time to begin a new paragraph. Complaints about excess space seem kind of hollow when you contemplate those extra gaps just sitting there. It’s not like the internet is going to run out of room…

    Those paragraph gaps are there for a reason. That extra space at the end of a sentence is there for a reason also.

  • 1. _It is a trivial task to turn double-spaced text into single-spaced text. (“Find and Replace”)

    2. _It is a difficult or impossible task to turn single-spaced text into double-spaced text.

    3. _Double-spaced text is easier to read for at least some if not most people.

    Given those three hard facts (Challenge them. _I dare you.), the logical way to go would be to compose and store text as double-spaced and to convert it to single-spaced only for those who want it and only on-the-fly. _That is, a version without.the information stripped away should always be available.

    By the way, can someone recommend (or program!) a FireFox extension that presents text with double-spacing intact?

    How about web publishing? _Can anyone point to a web publishing platform that can be made to present double-spaced text properly to all users?

    PS — For this comment I use the “double-spaced” to refer to spaces between sentences, though we double-spacers need to work to reclaim it from what should be called “double-returning”…or “double-carriage-returning”…or “double-line-feeding” etc.

By Tom Lee