How Many Spaces After a Period? A Battle of Stories

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how many spaces after a periodHow many spaces after a period? One or two? I researched and wrote an article about this frequently debated matter in my publishing blog that attracted hundreds of thousands of readers. The meaningful answer is that it really doesn’t matter what you do with your spacebar in the privacy of your own home or office. But why are writers so passionately devoted to one camp or the other? The real conflict has little to do with sentence spacing—and a great deal to do with stories.

How Many Spaces After a Period? The Typewriter Story

The typewriter came of age during the late 19th century. If you grew up in the days of mechanical typewriters, you were taught to put two spaces after the period (or “full stop” as our friends on the east side of the Atlantic call it). The mechanism relied on gears that advanced the carriage a single gear tooth each time a key was pressed. This means that a letter “i” occupied as much paper as a letter “w”. Two spaces were required to ensure that the gap between sentences was visible.

But the typewriter story is irrelevant. The typewriter was never the standard-setter for typography. Even during the late 1800s, printers had access to metal typefaces—individual metal characters they’d painstakingly assemble into books and newspaper columns. And these typefaces were proportional, i.e. an “i” was narrower than a “w”. Mono-spaced fonts were, themselves, a limitation of the gear-driven typewriter. A printer would never have touched them.

How Many Spaces After a Period? The truth

A survey of the history of printing reveals that wide spaces (em-spaces) after a period were standard practice until the style changed from wide spacing to narrow spacing between 1950–1960. (The wide em-space is a single character—not two consecutive spaces.) Typists were directed to hit the space-bar twice to imitate the em-space, which had been the style for centuries.

how many spaces after a period - sentence spacing 1787
Figure 1. (1787), the em-spaces are evident in red. Note also (in green) the spaces before the semicolons and the strange space–colon–em-dash combination (green, upper right) that are no longer seen in today’s typography.
how many spaces after a period - ee cummings 1960
Figure 2. (1960) is from a book by the poet, E.E. Cummings. Though the poet was known to take typographical liberties, this looks like straightforward use of the double-space.
how many spaces after a period - 1961
Figure 3. Type sample from 1961

What happened? The electronic teletypesetter appeared around 1950. It stored typed information by perforating a paper ribbon and sent that information to a linotype machine that cast “lines o’ type” in lead on the fly. The technological idiosyncrasies of that machine caused a double-stroke of the space-bar to result in an error. The line would need to be retyped and production would slow down. A double-space could even damage the machine resulting in downtime for repairs. The particulars of this are well-documented, but wide spacing’s demise can be attributed to the march of technology. It wasn’t the typewriter that required two spaces; it was the teletypesetter that required single spaces.

How Many Spaces After a Period? Debunking the Myths

Though the continued presence of a keyboard on our desks implies a certain technological lineage, digital typography evolved from traditional hot metal printing, not from the typewriter. The claimed transition from typewriter text to digital typography creates an “easy out” for those who were taught to double-space in the days before computers, but that evolutionary jump never took place.

The Single Space Story

Proponents of the single-space argue that digital typefaces are programmed to “know” how much space to insert after a period. Adding an additional space goes against the type designer’s intentions as spacing between a period and the following sentence has already been taken into consideration.

But the argument that digital typefaces have built-in spacing lends itself to the notion that writers shouldn’t have to type any spaces after a period. Why wouldn’t type designers build the required spacing into the period character itself?

And why shouldn’t digital type designers resurrect the wide-spacing standard that was lost after hundreds of years to the limitations of advancing printing technology?

Okay, So How Many Spaces Should I Type After a Period?

The best answer is “type as many spaces as you want” because it’s a trivial matter. If you prefer the look of the wide space, go for it.  But here are some considerations:

Most popular style manuals, including Chicago manual of Style and MLA indicate a single space. If you’re writing for a publication, use the style guide they specify or face the wrath of your editor.

If you’re typing on the web—for example, writing a blog post like this one—you can type endless consecutive spaces and all but the first one will be ignored. HTML forces single spacing unless you specify additional spaces with special escape sequences within the code (a space looks like “ ”).

If you’re a designer and you wish to emulate the look of a pre-1960 book, you can add double spaces after your periods (or use a typeface with a built in em-space) for authenticity’s sake. Otherwise, when you send your manuscript out for typesetting (because you would never, ever typeset a book with a word processor that isn’t up to that task), the first thing your typesetter will do is strip out all your double-spaces and reduce them to single spaces.

The convention today, even if you learned to type from a traditionalist, is the single space. Pick up any book or magazine in a bookstore. See for yourself. Check out any journalistic or academic style manual. The single space has been the “new” style for over fifty years, regardless of what your typing teacher taught you.

The Storytelling Perspective

The sentence-spacing debate involves two warring factions, each armed with an apocryphal story that supports their loyalty to one practice or another. When it comes to typed spaces, if logic or history were to declare either side the “winner,” the practical impact on the world would be inconsequential. All type would remain legible and no equipment would break.

What happens to us when someone invalidates our story? Passion for stories is often far more polarizing than what those stories are actually about or whether those stories are true. History, politics, and religion are rife with story conflict. Wars are fought over story conflict every day between factions impassioned by myths and lies. Laws get passed, loyalists to the losing side adhere to their old practices in protest, jails fill, and blood gets spilt.

Old Stories
  • Cow’s milk is good for you.
  • After eating, you should wait forty-five minutes before swimming.
  • When you turn into the lanes that cross a median, you should switch to driving on the left side of the road.
New Stories
  • Cow’s milk is full of fat and antibiotics. It’s great for baby cows, but not good for you or the planet.
  • You can swim immediately after eating or even eat in the water and suffer no ill effects.
  • Stay on the right to avoid facing traffic traveling straight across the median from cross-streets, ensure that you and drivers turning across the median from the oncoming lanes don’t block each other’s view, and stay in the accordance with the tradition of driving on the right side of the road in the United States.

 

What were you taught? What have you learned since? Are you even willing to learn? Will you do it the old way or the new? Giving up the old way can mean admitting your own ignorance and the ignorance of your teachers. As soon as the adherents of a new point of view tell us “you’ve been doing it wrong,” our nature is to rush to the aid of our story a lot faster than we rush to reconcile the facts with reality.

How many spaces after a period? The answer is meaningless.

Why do we care about that question? Now that’s a story worth thinking about.

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4 comments

  • The practical answer is two spaces. I’ve worked with publishers who expect two and publishers who expect one. If they want one and you use two, you can do a universal search and replace in a matter of minutes. If you use one space and they expect two, you have to go through your entire document and insert each one. Try doing that with a 100,000 word novel and tell me how one space is what you should do.

    • You can just as easily turn single-spaces into double-spaces with a find/replace. Just search for “period-space” and replace with “period-space-space.” More difficult is to find a style manual that still specifies double-spaces. The debate rages on, but I still think it really doesn’t make much difference. More important is that neither side of the argument usually depends on an authentic story to support their position. Thanks for writing. —Dave

      • Good luck doing that with dialogue heavy fiction. There’s no space allowed between the period and the final quotation mark.

        • Simply search for “period-quotation mark-space.” It’s all do-able with some clever search patterns.

 
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