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Spacing out, but just one at a time

A single space after a period, or two? Inquiring minds want to know, but the single space has been established typographical convention.

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Manson H. Whitlock repairs a Royal brand typewriter in New Haven, Conn. Manual typewriters may have been responsible for some people making double spaces after a period when writing.

Ann Hermes

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Did you learn to type in school back when they still called it “typing” instead of “keyboarding”? I did.

Did you learn to use two spaces after a period? Me, too.

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But did you, growing up professionally in the newspaper business, later absorb another rule, about using just a single space? 

I did. But those who drift off into more remunerative lines of employment do not, and some of them just keep double-spacing away.

Inquiring minds – in this case, a group of readers I ran into on vacation recently – wanted to know what the rule is, and when it changed, if it did.

Here’s the scoop: Typographers have been tweaking the spacing of type – the spaces within and between words – since Gutenberg. This is how type is “justified” – a moral-sounding term that simply refers to making the right edge of the column as straight as the left.

The advent of the typewriter in effect turned everyone into a typesetter, as the Web would later turn everyone into a publisher. But the typewriter had no mechanism for “justifying.” Letters on the page were sometimes spaced closely together, and other times more widely. The type would seem sometimes to roll across the page like an inexpert skater who keeps his feet together better sometimes than others.

And so the convention arose of setting off sentences from one another with a double space after the period. But technological improvements from the mid-20th century on, including the widespread shift to the computer for not only publishing but also business and personal correspondence, meant there was less need for this. By the final quarter of the 20th century, the single-space convention had taken hold in publishing, even though double-spacing held on with (manual) typewriting.

In a section on “The Author’s Responsibilities,” the Chicago Manual of Style states, “A single character space, not two spaces, should be left after periods at the ends of sentences (both in manuscript and in final, published form) and after colons.”

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A reference to this item appears in the index under “period (punctuation)”: “single (not double) space after, 2.12.”

For a book famous for being full of useful guidance, if only you can find it, this is the equivalent of a 48-point headline. Tell us how you really feel, Chicago.

Feelings on the issue remain strong, however. Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo began a 2011 column, “Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”

And here’s an item (posted as a question, no less) on a Chicago Manual online forum: “As a US Marine, I know that what’s right is right and you are wrong. I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period.”

The view from here: You’re welcome to your double spaces, but save them for your manual typewriter. Semper Fidelis.


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