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Lines in the sand

Some time back I pointed out, in my irenic way, that the replacement of typewriters by electronic word-processing software has made it unnecessary, and even undesirable, to put two spaces after a period. Just today, a gentleman named Stephen, bless his heart, posted this comment on the “Just one space, please” post:

I'm 27 and started typing 18 years ago. I learned on a typewriter, and later on an old Apple IIe in school. I've always put two spaces between sentences, and plan to continue doing so.

It’s a free country, and he is free to keep on doing this without fear of hearing hobnailed boots on the stairs in the middle of the night. And happily, as Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, has pointed out, Microsoft Word and similar programs enable editors to delete those superfluous spaces quickly and simply.

But still, as a writer of a language blog, I marvel at the determination—some might call it stubbornness—with which people are adamant about adhering to practices that are unnecessary and misguided.

“Mrs. Cadwallader told me in the sixth grade that none is always singular, and nothing that you or any other editor or linguist can say will make me think that it’s right to use it as a plural.”

Or “You’ll get me to stop writing is comprised of when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

I suppose that in the vagaries of this transitory life, people develop a sense of stability by insisting on retaining long-held beliefs and practices, even in the face of sweetly reasonable explanations that those practices are obsolete or wrong-headed.

Add to that, of course, that no one much likes receiving instruction from a copy editor.

But the vehemence, equally distributed among things that do matter and things that don’t matter very much at all, continues to strike me as disproportionate, and the resistance to new information as sad. The number of points on which I have been in error over the years has left me much humbler than the arrogant popinjay I was in my twenties. I’m tempted to repeat once more Oliver Cromwell’s plea, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

And also: Irenic, which you noticed in the opening sentence, is the word of the week at Feel free to comment on it there or here, and also look at the gallery of previous words of the week.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:36 PM | | Comments (38)


Thanks for making me look up "irenic."

I continue to write emails in plain text using a monowidth font, so two spaces after final punctuation remains appropriate for me. In order to simplify my life, I do so even places like this, where the browser will collapse multiple spaces anyhow — which makes those people who think they can tell single from double spaces on websites particularly amusing. (There are a dozen spaces before the word "websites" — could you tell?)

Speaking of stubbornness, I've come across something at my student publication that just seems silly. Someone on staff keeps changing "like" to "similar to" ... even when it creates an awkward (and inaccurate) construction. What "rule" could they possibly be operating under, and how can I explain its inappropriateness?

I use two spaces for e-mail, and one space for publication. Switching back and forth is no effort. I'm going to keep doing it. Sawry.

I too will always use 'none' in the singular, despite what anyone might say. Having said that, I realise that it's a personal choice and that if I'm writing for a publication other than my own blog, then I'll have to live with changes. We all have our idiosyncrasies, and they'll always be subservient to style guides and the caprices of pernicious copy editors (not, you understand, that I'm pointing any fingers). There are other considerations, too. I once found myself coming in to edit translated text where the original editor had two spaces, so for the purposes of continuity I had to do the same. It was a pain for everyone involved, but we kept it up.

However, I did freak once when "to him and me" was changed to "to him and I". I only found out when I read the published version. It was several years ago, and I'm still bitter.

Oliver Cromwell is one of the last people I'd consult about right vs wrong. The man illegally killed a king, sacked churches and helped to ruin a nation for a number of years. He had no aesthetic taste, and was a moral prig. I doubt he was much concerned with whether his flock used none with a singular verb.(Which I continue to do: the plural just grates, and I believe it is still legal.) If you had quoted John Donne, it might be a different matter, the shroud rehearsal notwithstanding.)

"the arrogant popinjay I was in my twenties"

What you mean "was," Kemosabe?

Someone once called me "irenic" in print, and I was pretty annoyed until I looked it up.

I believe that must have been me:

(Who else?)

I would be unimpressed with a composition system that couldn't automatically (a) collapse multiple spaces to a single space and (b) apply whatever spacing is house style for sentence ends. Heck, you're not saying Word is used for editing, are you?

I have yet to see or hear a cogent explanation for why the transition from monospace typewriters to proportional spaced electronic word-processing software has made double spaces between sentences unnecessary, much less undesirable.

Suppose you didn't think two word spaces was the correct width for minimum end of sentence spacing. A modern composition system would allow the interpretation of full point, wordspace as full point, proportional fixed space, wordspace. What you don't want then is another wordspace chucked in extra. As far as I can understand it that's the only reason. Perhaps John will put me right.

Ah, the memories of college days, when English teaching assistants would insist on strict MLA style when I was using some pretty powerful text formatters and proportional-font printers. I finally blew up at one and said that I am not using a typewriter, your rules are ridiculous, and if you insist on them, feel free to adjust my grade any way you see fit. Then I'll be happy to talk with the department chair about ridiculous rules that mean nothing.

Like most proposals these days that are intended to be irenic, yours seems to have had the opposite effect.

And, anyway, you were an enjoyable arrogant popinjay!

Wow. I'm surprised to see so many writers with such thin skin.

Ms. Saller, an editor for the University of Chicago Press, has posted advice at her blog for authors about the conventions they should follow with electronic manuscripts:

You will notice that she says never to tap the space bar more than once after a period. The reasoning for that convention is explained in the comments on the post.

Please note that I understand completely from your comments that you will do as you damn please at the keyboard. Let me just suggest that if you want to argue the point, take it up with the Chicago Manual of Style.

I can understand people saying that they have a habit that is hard to break, so they don't always remember to change a style.

What baffles me is the conviction that a lesson learned in a particular moment in time is a lesson for the ages. How is insisting on typing two spaces between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next any different than insisting that hand-written manuscripts are more beautiful than typeset pages, or that hand typesetting is better than the monospaced printing of early typewriters?

A perusal of the church cookbook my great-aunt and great-grandmother contributed recipes to reveals that salt and pepper were the seasonings of the day. There's not a whiff of basil or ginger in the book. Should we still be cooking like that?

Styles change. I don't wear the clothes I wore in the 1960s (although a couple of those dresses are still stashed in a closet somewhere), and I don't type like I did in the 1960s either.

Well, actually nothing in the way of a real reason is given in the comments to that post. Here's the section you probably mean, John:

"The reason for doing away with the double space after the period is that in the digital age your PC acts as the typesetter always has. To get the most printed words on a page, typesetters have always only had one space after a period to save space on the page. Your PC now acts like the typesetter, especially when you are using a justified right margin and the software changes the spacing between words automatically. So especially in preparing an e-manuscript, you are being kind and courteous to your book's graphic designer as he/she places the text on the page if you make sure you have only one space after a period."

I've read that several times, and it seems to me to give no reason other than some appeal to tradition. Which is vacuous, because it is just not true that "typesetters have always only had one space". To check I have just picked up a copy of Fowler's MEU from 1937. The additional spacing at sentence endings is clear to see. I suspect it may be a fixed space plus a spaceband.

Quoting Cromwell on anything but knowledge of savagery leaves this Irisher anything but eirenic, and brings out the tory.

That stated, as an Americann I could give a good golly if I, or my co-workers, put two spaces after a sentence.

I think you are looking for a dust-up on a slow day. Thanks for waking me up.

When Johnson and Boswell were touring Scotland, they visited Boswell's father, Lord Auchinleck, and Johnson and Lord Auchinleck got into such a quarrel that not even Boswell could bear to record the details.

But Sir Walter Scott recounted the local report that the two men had gotten into a quarrel over politics, and at one point Johnson demanded to know what good Cromwell had ever done for the country. Lord Auchinleck answered, "God, Doctor! he gart kings ken that they had a lith in their neck"— he taught kings that they had a joint in their necks.

He did, and the king concerned was a dangerous nitwit. But still Oliver wasn't the most charming of coves, was he?

Anyway, as I suspected John you have a copy of Fowler's Fowler at home. Have a look at the sentence spacing and then tell me the Chicago Manual of Style hasn't been misleading you.

If you'll have a look at the 1965 revision of Fowler by Sir Ernest Gowers, you'll notice that the double spaces after periods have been replaced with single spaces. You can certainly make an argument (as some have) that 1928 British practice is superior to 2010 American practice, but it seems preferable for writers to conform to the publishing conventions of their own time and place.

Also, I'm not aware that the mention of Cromwell in the original post was a reference to his charm.

My copy of Gowers' Fowler (1975 print of 1965 edn) has not got single spaces. Surely they didn't set the damn thing again for the US, did they? Less impoverished times, evidently. Be interesting to see if this is an Atlantic thing as well as a time thing.

Yes, of course it is preferable for writers to ... own time and place etc, but it would be nice to see some coherent reason for the conventions. At present there doesn't seem to be one. And there is the quite rational question of whether single spacing aids readability or otherwise.

And no, you're right: few of us will go to our deaths protesting Cromwell's charm. I don't think Simon de Montfort was much of a laugh in the pub, either. Or Robespierre. Was Washington one of the lads?

Oh dear, no, it's not a strange British fetish. I see the online facsimile of the 1st edn of Pudd'nhead Wilson (Hartford, Conn) has extra space at sentence end.

Oh, and the Baltimore Sun used to follow that convention, too, I see from the front page of 11 Nov 1918.

So the word from Chicago that "typesetters have always only had one space" is nonsense on both sides of the sea, I'm afraid.

Oh - this is too good. The online facsimile of the first edn of the Chicago Manual of Style employs ... extra space at sentence end.

I was taught that these days it depends on the font, that serif fonts were usually typed with two spaces between sentences but san-serif fonts only one.

You Don't Say will stipulate that publishing conventions of a century ago are not necessarily identical to current publishing conventions.

...and insists that sentence spacing shall be three times wordspace.

Sorry, that was Chicago again.

Well of course century-old convention is neither here nor there.

But asked to justify the ban on double-spacing you passed us on to Ms Saller. She it was who appealed to the god of tradition.

And she was very evidently wrong.

So now we're back to "it's convention because ... It's convention." Well fine. That'll have to do: so long as you go easy on those who find the explanation less than convincing.

And meanwhile some readability research would be useful.

As a junior high school student (in the days before everyone owned a computer) my typing teacher drilled the post-period double space into my head.
As a young reporter in the early 90s I was quickly broken of this habit because space in newspapers is precious.
Now, working as a contractor for the DoD, I am forced by very old and aparently unchangable tradition to double space and even triple space in some situations.
On the other hand I have so far resisted refering to "deadlines" as "suspenses."

I assume that those of us not blessed with a newspaper job may still put two(2) spaces after a period. And Cromwell was, in current British parlance, a "yobbo." Or, if you prefer, a scurrilous lout.

I am repeating below a comment made by "Plinko" on the original "Just one space, please" post. It links to a thorough and lucid explanation of how the introduction of proportional fonts in computers has made the two-space-after-a-period typewriter convention obsolete. Not that I expect anyone to be persuaded by reason or evidence or anything.

Interesting blog. I wrote the "Sentence spacing" article at Wikipedia.

I didn't find anything in my research that said that double spacing was "necessary" for Courier fonts. Some people might have thought that it made Courier (or other monospaced fonts) more readable. A look at the "studies" section in the article should be revealing though, I think.

Conversely, after reading your post about unnecessary double-spaces after full stops, I finally broke my life-long habit of doing so and now only use the single space. I made the transition quite painlessly, and don't regret doing so.

Thank you for posting that link, John. I was ignorantly unaware of how many studies had been done on the effects of sentence space on readability. I am surprised by their findings, but then the facts of typography are often counter-intuitive. I confess that I find the modestly sentence-spaced setting of the mid-years of the last century easier to read than the gappy setting of 50 years earlier or the tightset texts of 50 years later. But I accept that this may simply relate to my date of birth.

At any rate we can now start to give a reply to David Craig's comment that "I have yet to see or hear a cogent explanation for why the transition from monospace typewriters to proportional spaced electronic word-processing software has made double spaces between sentences unnecessary, much less undesirable." It should be a more rational reply than just another whinge about feckless youths stubbornly flouting non-existent typographic traditions. We could say:

(1) Studies tend to show that the extent of sentence spacing (within reasonable bounds) has no impact on the readability of set text. Moreover as more people become accustomed to current tightset conventions, it is not unreasonable to assume that greater sentence spacing will strike them as anomalous, and tend therefore to reduce readability. Unless new evidence emerges, simple single wordspaces at sentence ends should be maintained.

And we could get closer to the detail of Mr Craig's comment with the stuff I was alluding to in my comment immediately after his:

(2) If the style of the publication requires space at sentence end which is different from a wordspace, this (in an age of computerised typesetting and digital founts) can be achieved automatically and with much more accuracy and precision by system set-ups than by thumping the spacebar twice.

That should do the job without too much pain and tears and appeals to a non-existent typographical past.

Miss Terse: I wonder whether 'yobbo' is still current British parlance outside the popular press? It has a certain musty smell, whatever the OED may say, like many allegedly popular expressions that linger in the whisky-stilled brains of the late-middle-aged, late-middle-class executives of the Mirror, Sun and Star.

And Oliver - many of us are in two minds about him, you know. I suppose it's no real defence to say that many other folk who also have laudatory statues around the Palace of Westminster are equally loutish? Lady Thatcher? L-G? Winston? Yet two of the three at least are not unworthy of some degree of praise. No?

Thatcher and Churchill, si. Cromwell, non.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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