One or Two Spaces After a Period?
Which is correct? Does it matter? The Crits investigate.
Believe it or not, the debate about whether you should put one space or two after the punctuation (period, question mark, or exclamation point) at the end of a sentence still rages on. A quick Google search yields a plethora of pages about it. Some folks are quite vehement and verbal about their viewpoints, too. So, what is the big deal and what should you, as a designer or an author, do about it?
There are many references online about the history behind the arguments, so I won’t waste space repeating all of that in detail. Instead, as I navigate this topical minefield, I will link to and list some of the pertinent information to leave as an exercise for you, dear reader, should you want to dig deeper.
A great many grammar and typography professionals, as well as style guide manuals, these days are adamant that one should use only a single space between sentences. Some examples include the following:
- Ilene Strizver at typographic consulting firm The Type Studio
- Grammar Girl
- Modern Language Association Style Manual
- Chicago Manual of Style
- United Kingdom’s Hart’s Rules (1983)
- European Union’s Interinstitutional Style Guide (2008)
- European Commission’s English Style Guide (2010)
- About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography (2004)
- Oxford Style Manual (2003)
- Modern Humanities Research Association’s MHRA Style Guide (2002)
Even looking at the way books about grammar and writing are printed during the 20th century and thereafter reveals that a single space between sentences is quite a predominant style. Most writing on the web also uses a single space. However, since the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) specification reduces multiple instances of white space into a single one, the spacing using in online documents may not be as compelling an argument.
Many people use two spaces because they were taught to do so in typing class, because they perceive it as looking better, or to emulate the wider gap between sentences that appeared in earlier examples of typeset literature.
In fact, many style guides and typesetting manuals, including those before the invention of the typewriter, detailed extensive rules about how much space to use between letters, words and sentences. Often, the space between sentences was defined to be wider than the space between words, as documented by the following sources (thanks to blogger heraclitus for these links):
- The History and Art of Printing (1771)
- Cyclopædia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728)
- The Compositor’s and Pressman’s Guide to the Art of Printing (1808)
- The Printer’s Complete Guide (1825)
- The Printers’ Guide (1836)
- The Practical Printers’ Assistant (1836)
- The Compositor’s Handbook (1854)
- The American Printer (1866)
Even the Chicago Manual of Style, circa 1906, dictated that the space between sentences should be an em-quad (the width of the letter “em”). It remained that way until 1937, when an en-quad (the width of the letter “en”) became the recommended inter-sentence spacing. Finally, by the eleventh edition in 1949, there was no longer a difference between inter-word and inter-sentence spacing.
Space vs. space
Although I learned to type on a manual typewriter long, long ago, I have no recollection of using two spaces between sentences. Perhaps I did do it. However, I quickly moved to writing on a computer (Atari Writer in the early 1980’s) followed by an early start in desktop publishing (Ventura Publisher in the late ’80s and QuarkXPress in the ’90s) where using two spaces wreaked havoc on layouts, especially when using justified alignment.
Regardless, a key factor in this debate that I do not see much coverage of is that the physical space between sentences is related to, but a completely different thing from, the number of space characters that exist between those sentences.
How much visible space separates sentences is distance. It is a matter of layout, a decision based on design and aesthetics. Documented studies about the impact of spacing on readability and comprehension are, as of yet, inconclusive. As a result, the amount of gap you use is open to interpretation and artistic taste. If a particular typeface or body of work lends itself to the use of more or less space, go for it.
On the other hand, whether you press the spacebar once or twice upon reaching the end of a sentence, and before starting another one, is a matter of training, preference, or both. Using many space characters does not necessarily result in a larger gap (as in the case of HTML). One could say that pressing the spacebar more than once wastes effort.
Others might say that using two space characters is helpful to indicate the end of a sentence as compared to the end of an abbreviation and, thus, enables publishers to automatically apply the desired amount of separation. Although this sounds logical, in reality, none, one or more space characters could appear after any punctuation. Ultimately, the person tasked with laying out the page has to deal with too many or too few space characters, unless they are working with a writer who is a very accurate and conscientious typist.
So, you have read this far and, as a writer, are still wondering how many times you should hit the spacebar between sentences. If you are the sole author, editor and publisher of the content, you probably have free reign to use as many space characters as you like. Proceed to your heart’s content.
If you are working with someone who will be laying out your manuscript, find out if one convention or the other is required or would be more productive to the publishing workflow. If it does not matter, do what you are comfortable with.
If you are writing with others, it may be beneficial for everyone to agree to use the same convention, unless all extra spaces will be automatically reduced or otherwise normalized by some other means. Otherwise, inconsistent spacing could prove annoying for everyone involved.
Perhaps someday, publishing software will leverage linguistic processing to automatically determine where one sentence ends and the next one begins. Then the amount of space, the expanse, can be truly independent of space, the character.
(Featured image credit: NASA/C. Reed)
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