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One Space After a Period, Not Two
by Bill Kalpakoglou posted Jun 27th, 2012 at 2:26pm
Tenth grade typing class. It was going to be a mini-vacation between "real" classes like Geometry and Latin. My typing teacher was an exuberant woman who was Greek like me, so I expected some preferential treatment here. I thought typing was going to be like playing video games, where dexterity rules and here was a class I was going to coast through. Cue the rude awakening. Not only was our teacher harder on me due to her secret plan to make a race of Greek typing supermen, but wow was typing hard. We had these giant, heavy typewriters that looked steampunk before it was popular, and if you made a mistake there was a whole procedure involving white-out and lining up the typewriter carriage like a word sniper to type your next letter over it. That was when she allowed mistakes.
As the class progressed, it got harder quickly. We had to put covers over the keys to prevent peeking and where I had started out actually doing pretty well, I was really starting to struggle. One thing I was good at, however, was adding two spaces after the end of a sentence or a colon. It was like the finish line after the frantic seconds ticking before, my uncertain fingers hoping they were hitting the right keys. If you took typing class, you probably went through a similar experience. The thing is, what we learned was wrong.
Double Spaces: The Typography Sin
I'll elaborate before you go make some calls and get every typing teacher coming after me. Before typewriters were the norm, printed material was prepared by someone who was skilled in the art of typography. They knew that different letter combinations required different spacing between them, like when a "V" is next to an "A," and that each letter had its own width. This was called proportional typesetting. A lower-case "i" was far thinner than a capital "W," for an extreme example. And sometimes, they'd combine certain letter combinations so that they touched, like "ff," to form what's called ligatures, because frankly the spacing between them would look weird or the overlap between them might form spikes that weren't easy on the eyes. Make no mistake, this was an art and they took pride in their work.
Then along came typewriters and they ruined everything. OK not really, typewriters did bring clean printed material to the masses and suddenly business letters and official documents looked far more professional (imagine getting a hand-written bill in the mail today). But one drawback with typewriters is that they used monospace fonts. This meant that all letters used the same width, so yes a capital "W" was the same width as a lower-case "i." They were a typographer's nightmare. To make things a little easier on the reader, it became the convention to put two spaces at the end of a sentence or after a colon. It gave your eyes some visual indicators of where the "finish lines" were. We got along like this for a few decades, creating artless but functional documents, until something magical happened: personal computers.
A New Era in Type
Another in the huge list of innovations Steve Jobs gave us was making typography beautiful again. When the Mac shipped in 1984, it came with a set of proportional fonts. Showing that experience can be drawn from everywhere, Steve never forgot the brief time he spent in the typography class he went to after dropping out of college, and he brought that to personal computing. I'm not overstating it when I say this was revolutionary to not only the design world, but to everyone. We take it for granted now, but almost every book you read or ad you see or any non-handwritten text really is created on a computer using proportional fonts that used to require plates, ink, and someone with a lot of experience. Even with this automatic proportioning, designers still tweak kerning (the space between two characters) and tracking (the space between characters in lines of text). I should point out here that monotype fonts like Courier do still survive and are useful for things like tables or code, where it's preferable to have text line up.
How this pertains to two spaces at the end of a sentence is that not only is the second space not needed, but in a world of proportional fonts it's wrong. The people that resist this will say "That's how I was taught" or "I can't change," but they should be aware that they are going out of their way to do something incorrectly. Although I do cringe when I see this aberration, this isn't just my personal opinion or preference. Along with every typographer and every font creator who painstakingly took the time to get their font's spacing just right, every major authority on grammar will agree. The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, the Modern Language Association have come out and said it's unnecessary and wrong. You'll also find lots of expert opinion on the web like this article on Slate or here on Grammar Girl.
Apart from being grammatically wrong, it's just plain ugly. While it used to be the only option to break up sentences, it now creates unsightly gaps that distract the reader. You never see it on professional websites or print correspondence. In fact, it's a great way to announce to the world your design wasn't professionally designed because every professional designer worth their salt will tell you that double spaces are to be avoided. I recently went to a local government website, and they had two spaces after their periods. I thought to myself, "what a great way to remind me I'm dealing with a government office," It was like they figured out how to give me a small taste of waiting in line for two hours in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. While I don't expect small entities like government offices to employ professional designers, I do expect anyone who wants to be taken seriously to correspond professionally.
You might be surprised how rabidly the "two-spacers" will argue that their way is the right way, but rest assured that, despite what their typewriting teacher taught them so many years ago, in a modern world the correct way is one space...grammatically, aesthetically, and technically. Keep your type beautiful, hold off on that second space.