Ask the Editor Series, Q13
Q: My mother-in-law’s neighbor’s cousin said her hairdresser told her that we’re supposed to use only one space after the period at the end of a sentence. My world has turned upside down! Say it isn’t so!
A1: Welcome to the 20th & 21st centuries. We’re glad you finally made it.
A2: Everyone tries to make this so complicated, but it’s really not.
Two spaces. One space. How is a writer to know what to do when so much conflicting information is running rampant, all willy-nilly on the internet?
Before I even tell you why, the short answer is that only one space is required at the end of each sentence, regardless of whether the end punctuation is a period, exclamation mark, or question mark. That’s it. No arguments, please. But allow me to explain how we got from there to here.
My two-space history
I freely admit that I was taught to type two spaces after a period. I learned how to type on a manual typewriter—old even when I was young, those Royal Companions clicked and clacked their way through the abuse of hundreds of sophomores in my high school—while my teacher walked back and forth, reciting, “A S D F J K L semi,” over and over as we kept pace with her rhythm.
Strong fingers were the key to success, since the letters needed to be pushed down far enough and briskly enough to strike the ribbon of ink and make a clear letter on the page.
Along with learning roughly how many words or keystrokes would fit on a line before we needed to bump the carriage over, we learned that it was important for readability to hit the space bar twice after end punctuation. Twice after a colon. Twice before typing a ZIP code.
When I was in college, electric typewriters were the new thing, and not only could we type faster with less effort, but the new word processing-type machines would show up to twenty characters on a small screen before actually typing them. Twenty! This was an amazing leap forward, because now we were able to correct mistakes before wrecking an entire page of work.
Soon, word processors and computers entered the scene, and with those new advances came something called the “proportionally spaced font,” which adjusts the spacing to the size of the letter. That means a letter “i” doesn’t have the same amount of space allotted to it as a wider letter like “m” or “w.”
By the time I was homeschooling my children and they were borrowing the SpongeBob typing instructional CD from the library on a regular basis, single spacing was the norm (something I found out after failing numerous attempts at SpongeBob’s speed tests because I was double spacing).
I adjusted. I had to. SpongeBob demanded it.
A jump to the present day
Now that I’m a copyeditor, I’m appropriately horrified when I see a manuscript or query letter with two spaces after each sentence. A quick wave of smelling salts under my nose, though, and a visit to my trusty Find & Replace, and I’m as good as gold.
For all those die-hards who insist that two spaces is still the way to go, allow me to gently reiterate that you’re wrong. I’m sorry to break it to you, but if you were here with me, I’d include chocolate with the news, give you a “there, there” pat on the shoulder, and say it a little louder for emphasis.
Aaannd back to history
Because here’s the thing: the cold, hard fact is that typesetters for magazines, books, and even newspapers were doing single spaces as early as the 1940s. However, the average person who only had access to a typewriter was stuck with monospaced fonts (every letter equally spaced), and those are notoriously harder to read—Courier is the only modern font I can think of that still retains this—and thus ended up needing double spaces.
By the time electric typewriters and word processors entered the consumer mainstream, proportional fonts were common and monospace was a thing of the past.
But what about that study that said . . .?
A couple years ago, the results of a study purportedly gave the victory to the double space for readability, but the research and methods didn’t hold up under questioning. The leader of the study used a monospaced font (Courier New), which naturally would look better with the extra space—and more to the point, didn’t reflect the type of print copy most people read every day.
There’s nothing to be gained by stubbornness. You can cling to your double spaces with both hands, and in the end, your publisher will—in less than a handful of keystrokes—replace them all with single spaces. So why not teach yourself a new habit? This is not the hill to die on, and your editor will thank you for your willingness to learn and adapt.
If you have any questions, don’t forget to drop a comment and
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