April 25, 2020

The Space Between (sentences)

The argument for two spaces between sentences in modern writing is akin to refusing to turn off caps lock when texting or sending an email. Or to butcher Orwell, "One space good, two spaces bad."

The Space Between (sentences)

April 25, 2020 || Updated August 28, 2022

This article sprang into existence after reading Lifehacker's Don't Let Microsoft Word Judge You For Using Two Spaces Between Sentences.
My response: No! And more no! Big giant buckets of NO!

A hill to die on

All of us latch onto opinions that are logically tenuous at best. But if you are a writer in any capacity, especially at the professional or craft level, you will soon slam into arguments about spelling, grammar, structure, punctuation, and style. Exhibit A: The Oxford comma. If you take a look at the prior sentence, there's a pesky comma after the word punctuation. That's what folks call an Oxford or serial comma. Generally, when you list items in a sentence, you separate them with commas. But there is a camp that thinks the last comma is unnecessary unless the lack of that comma will lead alter the intended meaning. Those in the Oxford comma camp think that stylistically one should always use the Oxford comma to remain consistent and to be as crystal clear as possible.

The Oxford comma is an example of a stylistic preference. And it is indeed a preference. The AP Stylebook (preferred by news outlets and many magazine publishers) suggests (but does not require) that writers avoid using it. For spacing issues? I have no clue? The AP Stylebook also advocates (requires, in this case) compact ellipses (...).

The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, encourages, but again does not require, use of the Oxford comma. The Chicago Manual of Style is the dominant style standard used for writing short stories and novels in the United Status. I tend to prefer the Chicago style even outside of fiction. To complete our comparison, the Chicago style requires your ellipses to be spaced out (. . .).

Two spaces between sentences

There are those who advocate for two spaces between sentences. Most come from an era when this "rule" was taught in grade school. At least in the United States. For that generation, it was most definitely a requirement in typing classes and when turning in a formal paper.

The youngin's don't remember, but there used to be a day when all text was monospaced.  There even used to be a day where it was common for printed copy to be monospaced.  Awful.  I know.

These two paragraphs are an example of text formatted with a monospaced font.  In this case, two spaces arguably help with readability.  We also used to underline text when we really wished for the ability to italicize.  We lived like animals.

All this changed with the advent of modern word processors.

WYSIWYG word processors

Modern word processors render text in pretty much publish-ready form. At least the text is of publishable quality. Gone are the days where one turned over a monospaced typewritten document (or a digital equivalent) for review. Today, What You See Is What You Get. I.e., Most word processors (née fancy text editors) allow you to work in an environment where the text you see is really darn close to the desired end-publishable state. And that includes how the font appears on the page. [Today, for the same reasons you don't worry about the distances between two words or how far apart the 'l' and 'e' in the word letter are, you also no longer need to worry about the measure of separation between two sentences.] The typesetting engine solves these problems for you.

Alas, most word processing programs allow you to add as many spaces as you want between words and sentences and assume you know what the heck you are doing. Some fancier platforms (LyX comes to mind) will not allow you to add an extra space between sentences. Why? Because it makes no sense. Because it's wrong. Other platforms will allow you to insert as many as you want, but will then smartly squash them down to a single space when you print or publish.

Anyone who publishes to the web gets a convenient reminder of the futility of the two-spaces argument and a lesson on how the underlying automated typesetting machinery usually knows better than you about how something should look.

It should be noted that the empty line between paragraphs in most text presentation on the web is a legacy artifact of the difficulty of managing indentation and the dynamic presentation requirements to serve both desktop and mobile readers. This will slowly disappear, or perhaps it will become a new standard. Similarly, web publishers avoid justified text because modern browsers lag in their ability to manage hyphenation.

I am drafting this article in an advanced text editor—Joplin if you must know. The editor presents the text as monospaced, but no one else would ever see this version of the document. Once I feel the article is ready, I will deploy it to the blog software. Even if I had twenty spaces between sentences, like I left between "blog software." and "Even if" in the working copy, the blog software notes my lack of typesetting expertise and squashes the excess into one solitary space, correctly proportioned given the font selected. Additionally, I haven't hit the enter (carriage return) key yet as I typed this paragraph. It's all one line of text! You guessed it. The typesetting machinery under the covers knows better than I where to place the newlines so that the paragraph flows correctly.

Two spaces and ALL CAPS

Even today, some folks still adhere to "shouting" over text and even email. I used to work at a Kinkos years ago, and you would sometimes see entire papers written in ALL CAPS. (Those were usually the crazies. I have stories.)

WRITING IN ALL CAPS is an artifact of primitive user interfaces where nuanced capitalization was challenging or impossible. Two spaces between sentences is similarly an artifact of a time where people did not have access to modern typefaces and typesetting.

If you are still working in Courier New and handing that document to someone else to read and review, sure, there's a place for two spaces between sentences in that context. Otherwise, disable your capslock and stop pushing this particular square peg into a perfectly-designed round hole and join me in the battlement on my hill. Together we can convert the two-space heathens (who are all aged 45 and older, by the way)[1] while there is still time for them to find peace. We can do this!

For further reading:

  1. The age of 45 (and older) was something I admittedly pulled out of my ass. After some discussion and debate, we have come to the conclusion that the late '90s were when computers (and really achieved ubiquity in the United States. It was the lure of the internet that drove this penetration into every home that could afford one, and many homes that couldn't. This is also when computers truly became prevalent in schools almost across the board. Therefore 35 years old and older is probably more accurate with that perhaps even extended younger since old teaching habits tend to linger. Think of the children! ↩︎

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