• Too Much Space is a Dangerous Thing

    by  • March 29, 2012 • Bad Personal Philosophy, Writing • 4 Comments

    underwood typewriter

    The Culprit

    I didn’t realize that the question of correct sentence spacing was… actually a question. When it came up, I nodded and laughed politely.  I’ve been told that it is stylistically unforgivable to leave a button-up shirt untucked, that wearing black socks with tennis shoes is a mark of absolute barbarism, and that one should never double dip in salsa at parties with people you know have herpes.  I immediately classified this stylistic choice with those: I have no qualms with your single space, friend, but for my own part, I’ll stick with the two that have treated me so well.

    In the end, I did what any self-respecting gentleperson of the 21st century would do when confronted with some silly bit of arrogance: I moved for crowdresolution, asking my Facebook friends what they thought of the ridiculous idea that sentences in a paragraph should only be separated by a single space.

    I hate Facebook.

    After an exhaustive review of  at least 2 historical documents, the relevant Wikipedia article, and many long forum threads debating the relative correctness of the two policies (one space or two), and a comprehensive statistical cross-analysis of typographical tendencies with crime rates, I have come to a single critical conclusion:

    Single-spacers are more likely to pick their noses in public than are double-spacers.*

    Fortunately, this was not the only result of my research. I came up with two other conclusions as well.

    There is no technological rationale

    There are no clear logical or technological reasons why single spacing is superior to double spacing, or vice versa.  The preferential selection of one or the other as the correct method is a stylistic choice, similar to the so-called “Oxford comma” — but with a slightly less pragmatic axe to grind.  It is culturally preferred, not pragmatically dictated.

    According to a gentleman named Thomas A. Fine who was apparently even more irritated than I was over all the fuss:

    As I’ve read the various articles out there on this topic, I’ve seen it repeated quite often that typography experts have settled on one space between sentences as the only way to do things. And this or that typographer might be quoted. Although often people who are not typographers are also quoted. But what is the foundation of this bit of expertise? If they’re really in total agreement, or at least vast majority agreement, I should be able to look this up. However there’s nothing there to find. There is no basis for this bit of “expertise”. (In fact, I can’t even find evidence that typographers as a group are making this claim themselves.)

    Neither the single spacers nor the double spacers are unequivocally vindicated by the history of moveable type.  The double space rule was an attempt to replicate the established typographical styles of the previous era in the age of the monospace typewriter; the current single space mandate sometimes incorrectly associates itself with 18th and 19th century typography’s single space, omitting to mention that those historical spaces were “special” spaces three to four times the size of today’s standard word spaces. I wish I’d found Hericlitean River’s article on this topic earlier — the historical evaluation there is extremely thorough.

    Single spacers tend to be smug.

    That’s because they know they’re right on the right side of fashion. The Slate article “Space Invaders” is an excellent example of this smugness. Note that Manjoo opens with the big guns — double spacing is “totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong” — but then admits in a later passage

    Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing. It’s arbitrary that we write shop instead of shoppe, or phone instead of fone, or that we use ! to emphasize a sentence rather than %. We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience. Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that’s how we should do it.

    Of course, 70 years ago, double spacers were in exactly the same boat — certain of their correctness, and happily smug in expressing it. Oh, how tides turn.


    One of the most enduring arguments for increased spacing (see Wikipedia’s History of Sentence Spacing) is a purely aesthetic one from De Vinne:

    Printed words need the relief of a surrounding blank as much as figures in a landscape need background or contrast, perspective or atmosphere…  White space is needed to make printing comprehensible.

    I find myself agreeing with this. I do not find dense blobs of undifferentiated text appealing; my eyes need the relief of whitespace to be comfortable. Unlike some others, I would never let my blog become an impenetrable block of 8 point sans serif. Just not happening.

    At the most essential level, our practice defines protocol. So (not to be too banal in my moralism), I urge everyone to practice what feels right to them.

    In Tom Fine’s perfect words:

    Hopefully we can all just relax. If your boss or teacher demands two spaces then you can type two spaces without getting bent out of shape. If your publisher demands one space you can also please them with no loss of honor. And if you are writing for yourself, then you are free to follow your own aesthetic sensibility. You do not have to be oppressed by the conformists any more, no matter which side they are on…

    Do what looks right.

    Thank you and good night.

    * Actually, I just made this up because I was annoyed.

    4 Responses to Too Much Space is a Dangerous Thing

    1. March 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      I love this, Kevin. I’m sorry to have annoyed you, but I’m glad that it ignited the fire that led to this blog post. Well done, good sir! I will allow your single spaces!

    2. March 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Hi Flippy! You didn’t annoy me in the least, but you certainly did goad me to put together more text than I’m really comfortable doing these days.

      I do feel compelled to point out that you allowed me, not the double spaces I was petitioning for, but single spaces. You can keep those, but thanks for your generosity!

      Ping me next time you traipse up the corridor, we should grab a beer!

    3. Joe
      March 29, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      I’m simply relieved that HTML rendering will make everything OK.

    4. Scott
      December 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm

      Decades ago I learned in typing class to double space after a period and after a colon, and after the two-letter state before the zip code: Poulsbo WA 98370. No comma after the city, also–supposedly USPS standards.
      Other than those observations, I was simply getting a couple more samples of Bad Personal Philosophy, having just discovered it because of a Share on the hated Facebook. Can’t spend anymore time on it because I haven’t finished work, I wanna go to bed, and I probably have enough of my own bad personal philosophy. It’s cool to share it with other goofs, though, isn’t it?

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