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.