One Space or Two?

Since we’re on the topic of spaces, I thought I’d write a quick entry about spaces between sentences. A lot of us were taught to include two spaces after each sentence in typing class, and many of us were taught not to. Who’s right?

Short Answer:

One space is the current standard for spacing between sentences in English. (See CMS 6.11)

Long Fun Answer:

Well, spacing depends on what century it is and how you’re disseminating your words. In the early days of the printed word, type was set by compositors who set both characters and spaces. Since the earliest compositors were in the business of making printed text look as much like written text as possible, they added the same kinds of space between sentences as the scribes did:

Moveable Type in a Composing Stick
Moveable Type in a Composing Stick

Compositors carried on with this convention for hundreds of years. They found, just as the scribes had before them, that it makes the reader’s job much easier.

Then in the nineteenth century the mechanical typewriter became a practical alternative for writers wanting to create their own printed documents for business and personal use. The nature of the typewriter’s mechanics meant that the type on the page was monospaced (an i taking up as much space on the page as an m for instance).

Proportional and Monospaced Type
Proportional and Monospaced Type

This meant that a period and the space following it would also take up the same amount of space in monospaced type. This is why those of us who learned to type on typewriters were taught to insert two spaces at the end of a sentence, creating a facsimile of that natural spacing scribes and compositors had always included between sentences.

Here’s a typewritten page of Jack Keroac’s work that demonstrates very well how much more difficult monospaced type can be to read. His double spaces are welcome islands in a sea of dense type:

But since you’re looking at a computer right now, you know that typewriters and their monospaced type have slipped into relative obscurity. To be sure, every computer that rolls off an assembly line today comes with Courier (the love-hate monospaced font) but by far most fonts in use today are proportional ones.

These fonts and their visually pleasing proportionality make the second space superfluous: the spaces between sentences would no longer be at risk of being mistaken for the spaces within monospaced words.

And that’s one condensed account of the surprisingly complex story of how the single space came back into vogue.

For more great information about this topic visit these resources online:

Trick of the Trade: If you want to change your documents so that they use the single space instead of the double, you needn’t change them all manually (what a dreadful lot of work that would be). You can use Word’s find and replace function to do it for you: simply type two spaces into the Find field, and type one space into the Replace field. Voilà !

Try This at Home: This trick works with most word processing and page-layout and design softwares, but save your work before you start just in case, okay?

Don’t Try This at Home: This trick works in only one direction, so please don’t try to replace your single spaces with double ones using this method. If you do you’ll end up with double spaces between words within your sentences and in all kinds of other inconvenient spots.

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