When I was younger, I often wrote longhand using pen and paper, and avoided computers for as long as I could. The first computer I ever owned was a hand-me-down Compaq given to me as a birthday gift by my uncle, a tech savant who has a basement that looks like some long forgotten storage bunker in an abandoned Microsoft factory. For some reason he has multiple computer monitors, HP printers, cords, cables, motherboards, diskettes, and more surge guards than the Home Depot.
Shortly after graduating from college I bought my first Mac, one of the old eggshell-white laptops, and disconnected my Compaq tower and all of its coordinating parts. But before I became a devout Mac user, I fired up my PC and logged on one last time to peruse some old writing files and documents I still had saved. One recurring pattern I noticed in every single one of my old documents: I exclusively used two spaces at the end of every written sentence I had typed between 2000 and 2008 (the start of high school through college graduation). As you can tell from the formatting of this blog, the novelty of using two spaces to start each new sentence has worn off. I started to wonder, though, after browsing through my old files, when and why I had changed from using one instead of two? What was the cause? And is one style correct or incorrect?
The debate over how many spaces to use after a period has caused writers and graphic designers to butt heads seemingly since the dawn of time, and the fact that most of the major style guidelines contradict each other hasn’t helped lead to a definitive correct or incorrect conclusion. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style and Modern Language Association (MLA) both champion single spacing, while the American Psychological Association (APA) favors two spaces for drafts, but one space for final, published articles. More often than not, staunch defenders of using one space argue that modern computers, and, by extension, digital typefaces, use appropriate spacing already hardwired into each letterform, whereas typewriter fonts were monospaced, meaning that each character occupied the same horizontal space on a page (for a visual guide, open a blank Microsoft Word document and start pecking away using Courier font). Conventional wisdom breaks down the debate into a simple narrative of old versus new: those who were taught to type on typewriters rather than computers learned and abided by the double-space rule. A recurring joke on the topic is that single- and double- spacers are similarly divided by age as much as they are on their typing ideology.
Around 1950, most style guides had all but eliminated the double space in favor of a single space. The shift from double to single primarily created an outcast effect when viewing documents and printouts with noticeably larger gaps after periods at the ends of sentences, making the extra second space seem visually sloppy and somehow obsolete—what one columnist referred to as a “typographical atrocity.”
The most common reaction that readers have when coming across two spaces after a sentence is that it seems old-fashioned and outdated. The gapping effect, unlike the modern, trendy shifts toward a minimalist aesthetic, speak to a kind of primitive, work-in-progress sloppiness associated with onion skins and ink ribbons. Some writers and readers have been known to define the double space style as pedantic and even obnoxious.
Maybe the biggest advantage to using one space over two is that the smaller gap creates a more unified look to the page, and limits the chances of the reader feeling distracted from your overall message. This is yet another reason why an overwhelming majority of digital/online publications use one space after a period—it’s one more simple way to appear modern and cutting-edge. Ultimately the issue boils down not to correctness or grammar, but style, and nothing is more important in writing than utilizing a style that doesn’t distract or alter the meaning of what it you’re trying to say, and the message itself.
Thinking back on it now, I can’t remember exactly at what point I started writing using strictly one space, but I do recall an instance in which a friend of mine read something I had shared with him, and with a skeptical frown asked me why in the devil I was still using two spaces. As anticlimactic as that sounds, it might have been the event that triggered my conformity. And that’s not to say that just because I’ve modernized, I’m a better writer: in the history of the English language, I highly doubt anyone has ever claimed that a classic book—say, for instance, The Great Gatsby—wasn’t a classic because of spacing or formatting. Looking past the contradictions presented by the style guidelines, it’s worth remembering that you can format text any way that you want, as long as the words—and ultimately, your message—are clear.
By Collin Myers
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