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How Many Spaces After the Period, Take Two

Mar 17, 2014   [permalink]

So, I blogged before about switching to one space after the period. I'd read an article (noted therein) that said, in essence, "it's the eeeevil typewriter that switched everyone to two spaces after the period, because of its dastardly monospaced font; so we should all be using the One True Space after the period now that we're not using typewriters. Everybody who's anybody in typesetting knows it should be one. And you look like a moron if you use one." (Okay, that's not a quote, but it's pretty much the sentiment expressed.)

It sounded persuasive to me. I switched. Took me a couple months, but I broke the two space habit.

Two problems:

1) It's personal, but I noticed ambiguous situations. For example, ending one sentenced with an abbreviation, like "etc." (where there would be a period anyway) followed by a word that would always be capitalized, like "I" or a proper noun. So you get things like: "In certain cases I find one space after a period so frustrating, irritating, etc. I like chocolate." One sentence, or two? Only the author really knows. No rule can determine it. (In this case, two. I like chocolate no matter what else.) :)

If we followed a two-space rule, that would be unambiguous. There would be two spaces if two sentences, one space if it was one sentence. (Rewriting the passage would clarify—but, seriously, I should rewrite simply because I must put one space after periods?)

Let me say nobody seems to care about this problem but me. :)

2) That history, about the typewriter, etc.? It's totally false.

It turns out the long time, historical precedent, was for more space after a sentence than between words. I first learned that reading this article. This fellow did a lot of research—and shows the single space phenomenon didn't crop up until the days of the Linotype.

So, it was a technology thing that caused a change in space after periods—but it was the other way around! It was a specific technology that caused people to abandon the hundreds-year-old rule of using more space and switching to one space. This is around the 1930s, not ancient times. The one space idea was adopted basically for reasons of greed: using less paper, and being able to hire cheaper, less-skilled typesetters.

So I went to look at some old books, pre-1930s.

Thanks to Google Books scanning project of old books, one can look at a lot of samples. Here's a random one, from The History of Magick, published in 1657:

Text from History of Magick

It seems (as noted in that article linked above) that the norm for hundreds of years after Gutenberg invented movable type was to use an "em-quad" worth of space after the full stop. That's the width of the letter "M"—a lot of space. The space between words was often 1/3 of that, so it's equivalent to three spaces after a period. Sometimes they'd use more!

Today's HTML uses 1/4em between words, so an "em-quad" of space would be four spaces to a web browser. Wowza.

This large amount of space seems to be the norm from the 1500s into the 1900s. So: Nothing to do with the typewriter. The move to one space, on the other hand, is the new kid on the block. (And the one driven by technology.)

Well, now I don't know what to do. I've converted to the "modern" standard of one space. However, I hate those ambiguous cases it creates. So for those, maybe I'll use two. Or three! :)

At any rate, those who use two—you're safe with historical precedent. You can spread the word that the typewriter had nothing to do with it. So, do whatever you like. And to those one-spacers who grouse about the two-spacers: Give it up; they're as right as you are.

Can't we all just get along? :)


For grins, I looked at the Gutenberg Bible itself. It uses about the same space after periods as between words—except it starts all sentences with red-colored letters!

I could live with that, but it might look sort of odd by today's standards. Don't you think?

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