On sentence spacing and serial commas


All my life, when typing I followed a period at the end of a sentence with just a single blank space before starting the next sentence. It never crossed my mind to do otherwise. But I did occasionally notice that some people left two blank spaces instead of one and on one occasion I was told that it was I who was doing it all wrong and defying the proper convention. I simply ignored that reproof and continued being a one-space writer.

But it turns out that apparently there is a widespread belief that there is such a rule demanding two spaces and I recently came across this article by Farhad Manjoo that argues passionately that such two-space advocates are flatly wrong and are perpetuating something that arose out of a quick of history and has long outlived its utility.

He says that in the early days of printing, there was no specific rule and professional typesetters would use either one or two spaces, with some free spirits using three or even four spaces. But by the early 20th century, printers around the world began adopting best practices and they coalesced around the idea that one space looked the most pleasing to the eye and that became the standard. Every modern typesetter and every modern authoritative style manual began recommending one space.

So how did this two-space rule come about and still persist among so many people? Manjoo puts it down to a quirk of history that originated with the invention of the manual typewriter in the late 19th century and its widespread adoption by the early twentieth century. That changed everything.

Typesetters use proportional fonts in which the space assigned to each letter is proportional to its width, so that an i takes less space on the page than a w. This enabled an aesthetically pleasing uniformity density of black ink in the appearance of words in the printed text. But typewriters used fixed fonts that allocated the same space to every letter and this led to varying amounts of white space between letters. In order to make it unambiguously clear that a new sentence had begun, the practice of leaving two spaces originated and became the standard practice, with even typesetters adopting it even though they still used proportional fonts and did not face the same problem.

But now typewriters have been driven almost to extinction by computers that use proportional fonts and thus two spaces no longer serve any purpose. Manjoo argues that in addition they make the printed page look really ugly with these big white spaces breaking up the flow of the text. Furthermore, if one sees spaces in the text as cues to pause in the reading, then two spaces results in too long a pause.

I am firmly with Manjoo on this. Oddly enough, I am reading two books at the moment that show the difference. One was published in 2012 and it is a one-spacer and it looks nice. The other is a P. G. Wodehouse novel that was originally published in 1934 (but reprinted more recently seemingly using the same typesetting) and the book uses two spaces. The extra white spaces are really jarring on the eye, spoiling the flow.

Since I am making public my allegiance on this important matters, I would like to announce that I am also a firm advocate of the serial comma, in which a listing of three or more items requires a comma to precede the ‘and’ that comes just before the last item. In other words, I write “Tom, Dick, and Harry” rather than “Tom, Dick and Harry”.

Like with the one-space issue, I did not originally have strong views on this or even make a conscious decision as to what policy to adopt but just slipped into using serial commas because it seemed logical to do so. But I became convinced that it is the better form when it was demonstrated to me that not using it could lead to ambiguities in meaning that could be embarrassing. Take for example a devout Catholic who wants to dedicate his book to the people he admires. Writing “To my parents, Pope John Paul and Mother Teresa” might not go down well with some of his fellow Catholics but “To my parents, Pope John Paul, and Mother Teresa” would make it quite clear what he meant. Furthermore, since a comma serves as a cue for a pause when reading, serial commas provide the correct cues in reading that acknowledgment.

So I hope everyone will join me in advocating for single spaces and serial commas.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    I believe that WordPress automatically removes one of the two spaces between sentences that old fashioned folks like me continue to use.

  2. henry gale says

    Around 1982, while in middle school, I took a typing class that used recorded audio for the typing drills. It started off by saying something about using the “rhythm stroke method.”

    Anyway, it was drilled into the class that a period was followed by two spaces. I can still hear the voice saying, “period space space.”

    I didn’t do otherwise until years later when someone told me matter of factly that two spaces were used on type writers and one space on word processers.

  3. TGAP Dad says

    In old typewriters, which I used in the pre-personal computer dark ages, the fonts (technically “typefaces”) were non-proportional, and two spaces were the generally accepted practice following a sentence. Once proportional typefaces became widespread (I think even the early IBM Selectrics were capable of this) this rule was mostly disregarded. In an age where writing is commonly fully (right and left) justified, the one space/two space style became mostly irrelevant.

    When writing for an organization or publication, or for an academic or professional journal, there are usually published style guides the organizations use, so that their content has some consistency. The NY Times has one of the more popular style guides.

  4. Scr... Archivist says

    Professor Singham,

    I agree with you about serial commas, for exactly the reason given. But I also use two spaces between sentences (when I am allowed to) for a similar reason. Rules should aid clarity in communication.

    I interpret a single space after a period to mean that the word before the period is an abbreviation. Consider “No” or “Brig” or other words that could be complete words or abbreviations for longer words, depending on the other cues to their meaning. The number of spaces tells me what word I am reading.

    I can’t use an example because, as slc1 points out, WordPress forces a single-space rule.

  5. Suido says

    Serial commas can be helpful or unhelpful depending on context.

    The wikipedia article contains examples where adding the comma resolves ambiguity (helpful, as shown by Mano), creates ambiguity (unhelpful, not covered here), or leaves the ambiguity unresolved (again, not covered here). Rewording of the sentence is the only remedy for this latter case. Teach the controversy!!!

    I don’t have a hard and fast rule for it, choosing whichever system makes my point more clearly in the given context, as well as allowing for sentence flow. For example, in the above paragraph I used it, but in simple lists I usually don’t.

    Didn’t know about the double spacing, that’s nice historical trivia.

  6. evilDoug says

    When I learned to type back in the 60s, two spaces were “required”. I changed to using a single space some time not long after I changed to using a word processor. With proportional typefaces, it is often pretty hard to tell if one or two spaces are used, since they are very narrow to begin with.
    Any text that is fully justified by a word processor has additional space added between words anyway, so what was there to being with doesn’t matter much. Full justification often seems to cause much higher incidence of hyphenation (often contrary to “rules” such as those against hyphenation of proper nouns). I prefer ragged right in most instances.

    I usually use the Oxford comma.

  7. sunny says

    I am not sure whether you have read any of Farhad Manjoo’s other articles. His writing consists of taking something that might be considered as conventional wisdom or a common rule and arguing against it simply for the fun of it. The man does nothing else. I have stopped reading his articles. Perhaps the one you are discussing is more worthwhile.

    With reference to Wodehouse, I hope you have had a chance to see the Bertie and Wooster episodes on Youtube.

  8. jamessweet says

    I confess to being a two-spacer myself, I developed the habit before I heard the counter-argument, and it is simply too hard to break. And in any case, in most contexts today, it will be formatted automatically. For instance, I am two-spacing this very comment, but you would never know it, because when it formats the HTML, it will condense all whitespace down to the same amount. Unless, of course, I do this…   Muhahahahahahaha!   I ruin your formatting with my moderate knowledge of HTML!

  9. Mano Singham says

    I am a hardcore Wodehouse fan, having read many of the books over and over again so yes, I have seen the Laurie/Fry interpretation of Wooster and Jeeves. They capture the characters really well.

  10. OverlappingMagisteria says

    As a one-spacer I’ll regret giving you the secret, but you can prevent HTML from ignoring extra spaces by using the non-breaking space character. Type it by entering:

     

    For example typing this:
    white      space

    Produces this:
    white      space

  11. Cathy W says

    I was taught the two-space rule in typing class in 1984ish – still on manual typewriters in middle school, and electric ones in high school. I stopped two-spacing after college when most of the typing I did was on an internet forum that, as part of its pre-processing of input, stripped out “extra” spaces – it seemed pointless to type a space that was going to be stripped out anyways.

    I generally use the serial comma, because I find it generally removes more ambiguity than it creates. Many of the cases where the Wikipedia article suggests that the serial comma would create ambiguity, I would resolve the ambiguity by using parentheses instead of commas to set apart a descriptive phrase in the middle of a list – or it’s also proper to use semicolons to delineate items in a list where individual items contain commas.

  12. raymoscow says

    I was taught the 2-space rule in typing class in high school, and I still do it unconsciously.
    My wife writes fiction for a living, and she tells me that the rule is obsolete (according to all the publishers that she’s used).

  13. Marshall says

    Mano–I’m firmly with you on this. However, the Oxford comma can actually introduce ambiguity as well. Consider the following sentence:

    “I dedicate this book to my father, Pope John Paul, and Mother Teresa.”

    In this case, you’d once again upset the Catholics.

  14. Carol Lynn says

    I know all about the one space rule but I have never been able to convince my thumbs to not type that extra space. Those darn thumbs of mine seem to have a life of their own when I’m typing. Is breaking a 50 year old habit worth the trauma when it’s only an extra space?

  15. invivoMark says

    I couldn’t even do it after 10 years! My mother taught me as a wee lad (probably around high school) that two spaces were correct. I consciously tried to stop several years ago, partially to save characters on limited-character entries (such as forum posts, etc.), and simply could not do it. I gave up a long time ago, and now this post has double-spaced sentences! (But the Oxford comma is simply correct.)

  16. Mano Singham says

    Oh, those Catholics, always causing trouble!

    In such cases of possible ambiguity, I would probably say something like: “I dedicate this book to my father and to Pope John Paul I, John Paul II, and Mother Teresa.”

  17. Tracey says

    YES. I had the same exact experience in typing class, also in 1982. One space makes the sentences look weirdly jam-packed to me. However, I use the Oxford comma.

  18. Tracey says

    It was watching Wooster & Jeeves (as embodied by Laurie and Fry) that made me go back and read Wodehouse’s books.

  19. left0ver1under says

    Scr… Archivist (#4)

    WordPress forces a single-space rule.

    It’s not wordpress that enforces single spaces, it’s HTML and browser layout engines. They remove double spaces automatically, requiring a non-breaking space (nbsp) tag to add a second. It’s probably a legacy of C programming, how spaces are ignored during compiling. The preformatted tag (pre) provides a workaround, though that usually means it appears in courier fonts. I prefer courier fonts, so that’s fine by me.

    MS:

    [B]y the early 20th century, printers around the world began adopting best practices and they coalesced around the idea that one space looked the most pleasing to the eye and that became the standard.

    Was it? It may have been done to reduce the length of the text. At 10,000 words for a short novel, average of five letters per word and eight words per sentence, the double space amounts to 250 extra spaces per novel, about a quarter page in large type proportional font. That could mean an extra page per book, increasing the cost of production. Italic fonts were first invented so more text could fit onto smaller pages and save on printing costs.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italic_type#History

    I was taught to use double spaces to differentiate between abbreviations and ends of sentences. The abbreviation “Mr.” is almost always followed by a name, but others can be ambiguous. “St.” can be “Saint” (usually followed by a name) or “Street” (usually preceded by one), and “etc.” could be mid-sentence then followed by a capital. When there’s less ambiguity, a person can read more quickly, without having to re-read or do a doubletake out of confusion.

    More important point than spaces is the width of the text on the page or screen. The human face is about 15 centimetres wide (six inches, for Americans reading this). Paperback novels, newspapers and encyclopaedias are all printed in narrow columnar formats easily seen within one’s peripheral vision. The blogpost and comments sections on FtB are slightly wider than the head (18cm on a large screen), and I would bet many readers dislike moving their head side to side to read it.

  20. baal says

    I’m also a two spacer based on my typing class in the mid-80’s. I’m neutral on the comma but have a wife dead set against ‘extra’ ones. I’m somewhat baffled that the Ed is against 2 spaces as a step too far but allows ginormous spacing between comments.

  21. Scr... Archivist says

    Thanks for the tip. Ironically, non-breaking spaces annoy me for some reason. I will use sparingly.

  22. says

    I use two spaces at the end of a sentence. I think it’s better for non-justified text, but when text is justified, it can cause problems.

  23. richardrobinson says

    It does and it doesn’t. The text eventually gets interpreted in HTML, and HTML treats any amount of white space in a contiguous block of text as a single space. Thus the need for <p> tags, “&nbsp; and the like.

    The comment interpreter built into WP here does a little extra work to make sure your line breaks and such are properly interpreted, but doesn’t bother with extra spaces.

  24. The twelfth vote says

    No discussion of the Oxford (aka serial) comma would be complete without its canonical joke:

    A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. “Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

  25. Sili says

    So if rewriting is alright, then why not just go for

    “I dedicate this book to Pope John Paul, Mother Teresa and my parents.”

    ?

    The simple answer is , that there’s is no best practice, and never can be. Language is by design ambiguous, and that’s a good thing.

  26. says

    I use two spaces after a period and the serial comma so I can make a 13 page essay into the required 15 page. Why else would anybody still use them. Oh, but I will claim it’s because I’m a traditionalist on the two spaces and because of ambiguity preferences on the comma. I just wanted to start off being honest.

  27. garnetstar says

    I can’t break it either. Back when they made girls take typing class in high school, you had to be able to type at least 40 words per minutes without errors to pass, and 100 a minute to get an A. Not double-spacing was an error.

    So now I’m a fast typist, but only with a double-space. I can’t stop to think about only putting in a single, or my fingers scramble all over each other.

    OTOH, the serial comma is a necessity of life.

  28. says

    Another example where the serial comma is better avoided is when there’s multiple “and”s grouping stuff: “A, B and C, and D, E and F.” Putting commas after B and E would look weird and possibly confusing.

  29. says

    Back in the days when you had only 32 (monospaced) characters across your screen, you didn’t put any space after a full stop!

    I tend to type two spaces after a full stop nowadays, but that’s more to do with a text editor I used to use years ago which auto-formatted text that way. But most HTML rendering engines seem to treat a contiguous expanse of whitespace (spaces, tabs and — unless it inserts <br /> elements by itself — newlines) as a single space anyway, so there isn’t a lot of point typing them.

    I was always taught that you do not need a comma before “and”. In fact I tend to try to avoid unnecessary commas anyway: it ought to be obvious where to pause when reading a sentence aloud. My preference is for minimal punctuation and non-indented paragraphs separated by blank lines.

    But what is actually most important is consistency from one sentence to the next. Changing styles in the middle of a piece of writing creates a jarring effect. Compare the fact that you can get away with playing music at a very loud volume as long as it is undistorted — but people will complain at a much lower acoustic pressure level if the THD is higher.

  30. cafink says

    I work as a computer programmer, and almost always use a plain text editor for any writing I do, not just code. Text editors normally use monospace fonts, so I think the two-space rule is still appropriate there. And in most cases where that text is rendered using a proportional font, such as on an HTML web page or in a LaTeX-generated document, the extra whitespace is discarded, anyway.

  31. says

    Who the hell is teaching that you don’t need a comma before “and”? I was taught early on that, when listing things in such a format as “X, Y, and Z”, you ALWAYS put a comma in front of the “and” — for clarity and ease of reading. And two spaces between sentences IS correct — you one-spacers are generating confusion, due to abbreviations that can be confused for actual words (and vice versa), such as “No.”, or “St.”

  32. says

    Britain.

    No comma before “and”, no comma between the last two of a series of adjectives (on a calm, dry, clear moonless night) and no full stop after an abbreviation that does not fall at the end of a sentence (Dr Williams, at a lofty 201cm, is probably the tallest person on the New St Campus).

    A full stop between the integer and the fraction (older usage was a dot halfway up the height of a figure 0, but this was hardly ever available outside of professional typesetting equipment), and spaces between groups of three digits (older usage was commas between groups of three digits; but this usage is deprecated because on the Continent, where people still use fountain pens, “two and a half” written in figures looks more like “2,5”). And when writing a number in exponential notation, the exponent should be treble (so “589e-9″, not “5.89e-7″).

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