How many spaces after a period?” I hear this question from many people–my students at Brookdale Community College, executives at business writing seminars. It’s a big debate that can go on for a half hour or so. But there is a simple answer. Before I give it to you I’d like you to take this brief quiz. Then move on to the history and answer.
IT’S THE SPACE BETWEEN SENTENCES MYSTERY: TAKE THE QUIZ:
ALL THE WAY BACK TO GUTENBERG
So, now, back to mystery of spaces between sentences. It all goes back to the history of printing–when Gutenberg invented movable type. At that time, most printers used variable spacing after a period. Gradually English (and early American printers, but not the French) used an ’em’ space–that is approximately what we could call two spaces after a period. But the spacing varied and would depend on what the printer was typesetting and how the type (ie. sentences) lay on the page which usually was “justified,” that is, it ran from left to right across the page and did not have a ragged edge on the right as blocks of type typically have today.
TYPEWRITERS DISRUPT EVERYTHING
Mechanical type setting systems introduced in the 19th century continued this variable sentence spacing. But then typewriters jumped into the mix. They revolutionized business documents since these could now be typed in an office (not just hand written and then sent for typesetting to the printer). But there was a catch. Typewriters used “monospaced type.” What this means is that every letter or character took up the same amount of space on the key. This was very different from variable sentence spacing, where printers could give less space to thin letters like “I” or “L” and more space to wider letters like “W” or “M.” So typists began to insert “two spaces'” after the period for clarity; that additional space made everything easier to read when typed on a manual typewriter.
COMPUTERS AND ELECTRIC TYPEWRITERS JOIN THE FRAY
Finally, we come to electric typewriters and computers. With these inventions, people could create text using proportional fonts. That is, as in the “old days,” thin letters took up less space then fat ones. All the fonts on the PC today are proportional (except for Courier). Because of this, one space is enough after a period for the eye to distinguish between sentences. Adding two spaces doesn’t really make a document any more readable.
THE CONVENTION TODAY IS ONE SPACE
From the mid 20th century onward, typographers and style experts began to fall in step with this “one space” convention. Double spacing faded away and it’s hard to think of anyone who really insist on using it now. In fact, now some manuals on typography state emphatically that two spaces before the start of a new sentence is completely wrong.
So there you have it. The “convention” has changed and to keep pace with it, no matter what field you are in–from law to resume writing–you had better jump on this bandwagon.
HOW I FOUND THIS OUT
Years ago, I admit that years ago, I admit that I was stumped, too, as an editor. In my own writing, I had unconsciously switched over to the “one space” rule. But I didn’t think about it much. Then, as the editor of a 30+ page quarterly magazine, I began to receive manuscripts that contained both styles–two spaces here, one space there. It was understandable, since most of my writers were engineers who worked in innovation, not professional writers. So I had to double check and find out what was happening. I discovered the one space convention. Then I had to break the news to the writers who were very attached to the old two space typewriter habit. It was hard. They argued. There was resistance. But in the end, the one space rule prevailed. Editors can win those sort of battles with writers.