Spaces after a period


in Geek stuff, Rants, Writing

Why did anybody ever put two spaces after a period, when typing?

Because of typewriters. Indeed, one name for this approach to sentence spacing is ‘typewriter spacing.’ Typewriters tended to use fixed-width fonts, in which each character takes up as much space on the line as every other. Each character is in its own little rectangle, like on a piece of graph paper. When text is presented in such a way, it arguably makes reading easier to have two spaces after periods.

Computers rarely use fixed-width fonts. The most common example (Courier New) is often used for purposes where seeing spacing is very important, such as when writing computer code. For text meant to be used by human beings, proportional fonts are superior. In these, letters take up different amounts of space, with narrow letters like ‘i’ taking up fewer pixels of width than wide letters like ‘w.’

In this situation, there is no reason to put two spaces after periods. The practice is obsolete.

So, why does it endure like a virus continually making the rounds? I would guess that institutional conservatism is the answer. Organizations like government departments adopted typewriter spacing decades ago, and never changed over. Similarly, typing classes in the world’s elementary schools may well be taught by people who originally learned to type on a typewriter, or who were themselves taught by someone who did.

Personally, I hope typewriter spacing eventually manages to fade away. It is especially annoying when you have to incorporate text from a typewriter spacer into a document mostly written using modern spacing. You have to do a find and replace operation to substitute single spaces for double ones, then manually scan through the altered text to verify that nothing barbarous has resulted.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one } July 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Just heard you read at BOLO – great job, and you’re bang on. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

coyote July 8, 2010 at 6:37 am

Perhaps it may be as simple a thing as imprinted (heh…) muscle memory. People who learned to touch type in the era of typewriter spacing can find that it’s a hard habit to break. I’d also guess that its persistence may have less to do with institutional conservatism, than with the fact that many people in those institutions simply never notice the extra spaces. People are funny that way.

Byron Smith July 8, 2010 at 7:17 am

I’m with coyote; muscle memory and unconscious aesthetics are at work. I have occasionally questioned students or colleagues who use double-spacing and they all either reply that it comes naturally when typing or that it looks right.

Byron Smith July 8, 2010 at 7:19 am

The much larger hangover from the mechanics of typewriters and one that wastes far more time and causes far more agony as a result of institutionalised obsolescence is the QWERTY keyboard: originally introduced to slow down typists on machines that were unable to cope with high typing speeds (the keys would get jammed), QWERTY keyboards continue to frustrate and slow the acquisition of typing skills. The only word that does come naturally is, of course, QWERTY.

. July 8, 2010 at 8:06 am

The QWERTY myth

Economists adore a nice case of market failure. The dogged persistence of the standard typewriter keyboard, held to be a technological anachronism, is a great favourite. Yet the charges against QWERTY were long ago disproved

“The myth goes roughly as follows. The QWERTY design (patented by Christopher Sholes in 1868 and sold to Remington in 1873) aimed to solve a mechanical problem of early typewriters. When certain combinations of keys were struck quickly, the type bars often jammed. To avoid this, the QWERTY layout put the keys most likely to be hit in rapid succession on opposite sides. This made the keyboard slow, the story goes, but that was the idea. A different layout, which had been patented by August Dvorak in 1936, was shown to be much faster. Yet the Dvorak layout has never been widely adopted, even though (with electric typewriters and then PCs) the anti-jamming rationale for QWERTY has been defunct for years.

In 1956 a carefully designed study by the General Services Administration found that QWERTY typists were about as fast as Dvorak typists, or faster. Interest in Dvorak among companies and government agencies had lately been increasing, but it came to an end with that finding. Since then, as “The Fable of the Keys” explains, there have been a variety of other experiments and studies. They find that neither design of keyboard has a clear advantage over the other. Ergonomists point out that QWERTY’s bad points (such as unbalanced loads on left and right hand; excess loading on the top row) are outweighed by presumably accidental benefits (notably, that alternating hand sequences make for speedier typing).

Which is all very interesting, but the point is this: if you have learned to type on a QWERTY keyboard, the cost of retraining for Dvorak (however modest) is not worth paying. This implies, in turn, that the QWERTY standard is efficient. There is no market failure.”

. July 8, 2010 at 8:13 am

(Journal of Law & Economics vol. XXXIII (April 1990)]

“In the economics literature on standards,2 the popular real-world example of this market failure is the standard Qwerty typewriter keyboard 3 and its competition with the rival Dvorak keyboard. This example is noted frequently in newspaper and magazine reports, seems to be generally accepted as true, and was brought to economists’ attention by the papers of Paul David. According to the popular story, the keyboard invented by August Dvorak, a professor of education at the University of Washington, is vastly superior to the Qwerty keyboard developed by Christopher Sholes that is now in common use. We are to believe that, although the Dvorak keyboard is vastly superior to QWERTY, virtually no one trains on Dvorak because there are too few Dvorak machines, and there are virtually no Dvorak machines because there are too few Dvorak typists.

This article examines the history, economics, and ergonomics of the typewriter keyboard. We show that David’s version of the history of the market’s rejection of Dvorak does not report the true history, and we present evidence that the continued use of Qwerty is efficient given the current understanding of keyboard design. We conclude that the example of the Dvorak keyboard is what beehives and lighthouses were for earlier market-failure fables. It is an example of market failure that will not withstand rigorous examination of the historical record.”

EK July 8, 2010 at 9:06 am

I recently got into a fight about this so heated that my friend and I had to agree never to discuss it again, or else threaten our friendship.

I love typewriter spacing. I will always love it. Like the Oxford comma, you will never tear it away from me, and also like the Oxford comma, I really find it makes reading easier (not that it’s hard with one space, but that it’s easier this way). It hurts my soul a little bit each time Facebook automatically removes my extra space I typed.

PS: Merging documents will always require revising for continuity of style. Checking for (and inserting) Oxford commas, for example. Or the fact that many people choose to persist in believing that “it’s” is possesive. *sigh*

Milan July 8, 2010 at 9:28 am

The Oxford comma definitely makes sense to me.

When making a list, why would you use punctuation to separate all but the last two elements?

Another annoyance is when editors don’t recognize the validity of nesting a list delineated by commas inside a list delineated by semicolons, as such:

“He bought three types of groceries: fruits and vegetables; skim milk, cheddar, and mozzarella; and whole wheat and granola cereals.”

More than a couple of times, people have told me that this is an unacceptable way to form a sentence. I think, however, that it is clear and sensible.

Byron Smith July 8, 2010 at 9:50 am

The costs of retraining on Dvorak only need to be slightly higher than the benefits to prevent the switch, which they undoubtedly are, almost no matter how high the benefits are (and I doubt they are more than modest, if any), since the costs are very high when the whole world uses QWERTY and one has already learned to type on QWERTY – a significant sunk time cost. Thus, I’m not convinced by the study linked above.

The fact that Qwerty has significant problems suggests that a better design is possible (even if it is not represented by Dvorak), but the enormous sunk costs in Qwerty make a change very unlikely, unless it occurs with a change in technology (involving, for instance ,a shift away from keyboard as primary input).

Milan July 8, 2010 at 9:54 am


Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I am always especially interested in responses to my climate change posts.

. July 8, 2010 at 10:20 am

How to use a semicolon
The most feared punctuation on earth

Lynn July 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I’ve used typewriter spacing for years but recently read a blog post that changed my mind (can’t find it now…it was a detailed discussion of fonts and why it is no longer necessary). I’ve really been trying to drop the double space but it’s very hard to retrain the fingers. The faster I type, the more I have to backspace to remove the double space.

But I’m committed! I’m on your side now :).

Milan July 8, 2010 at 1:34 pm

The Wikipedia article on sentence spacing is a pretty good resource.

Justin July 15, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for the knowledge sharing. I was often wondering where that practice came from.

I also hope that the practice becomes obsolete, it’s ridiculous and useless and sometimes feels as if it’s only purpose is to annoy new analysts when they arrive in a new department.

Plinko July 18, 2010 at 1:59 am

Glad you like the Wikipedia article. It took me a few months to write it. It’s a “featured article” now, so it’s more or less done.

Laura July 19, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Hey Milan,
I was wondering recently if this had changed. I learned to type when 2 spaces was the norm but have recently been tending inconsistently towards one. Hard to keep track of the speed of grammar changes.
P.S. I linked here via BOLO after following a bunch of links that originated here: Join the blog rally challenge.

. August 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

“But did Sholes really doctor the configuration of letters to slow the typist. Would an inventor really hobble his own brainchild?

If so, argues Fry, then the Qwerty keyboard and its inventor could be accused of “conspiracy to pervert the course of language and to limit the speed of creativity and language input, endangering billions with repetitive strain injury”.

Qwerty can be seen, he argues, as “a deliberate spanner in the works of language, metaphorically and technologically”.

Qwerty is “not ergonomic” agrees Professor Koichi Yasuoka, of Kyoto University, a world expert on the development of the keyboard.

But he sees evidence of the practicality of Qwerty in a world of mechanical typewriters. “T and H is the most frequently used letter pair in English,” he explains. “In fact in Sholes’s typewriter, the typebar of T and H are located on opposite sides.”

The separation of these letters was made in the interests of speed he believes. Users could type T-H without crashing keys, whereas the proximity of E and R he argues is inefficient. In other words there is no evidence of deliberate slowing down.

“Ergonomics were not a characteristic of mid-19th century design,” he concludes.”

. October 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Books, arts and culture

Latest Prospero
Latest from all our blogs

Johnson: When is a rule not a rule?
Oct 1st 2013, 13:22 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK

A FRIEND of Johnson’s recently posted on Facebook a January 2011 article by Farhad Manjoo on Slate that began

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

That the article is still being passed around, and has been shared on Facebook over 165,000 times, reveals a surprising passion on this issue. But the comments on my friend’s Facebook posting also reveal a slightly depressing willingness of people to be cowed by anyone who stands on an internet soapbox and declares inarguable rules. “Now you’ve set me straight,” one commenter wrote. Another was surprised at not having heard about the new rule earlier; her mother was, after all, “a grammarian at heart” and had taught her to be on the lookout for such things.

Well, Johnson has a secret, too: pronouncing a diktat like “never use two spaces after a full stop” is not totally, completely, utterly and inarguably wrong—but it is mostly wrong.

Many people have the idea that absolutely everything to do with language is governed by strict rules. A corollary is that these rules must only leave one option. If once space is correct, then two spaces must be totally, completely, utterly and inarguably wrong.

The history of the dispute is simple enough: typesetters have been using one space after a full stop for most of a century. But people who learned to type on mechanical typewriters with monospaced fonts were taught to use two spaces, because monospaced fonts (in which all letters have the same width) leave white space on either side of skinny letters like i and l. So two spaces at the end of sentences was meant to convey meaningful (rather than meaningless) space on the page. Johnson learned to touch-type around 1990, when word processors had nearly completed their replacement of typewriters. But the teacher had learned to type well before that, leaving your columnist with a two-space habit that persists to this day.

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