Why Oh Why… Do Some People Still Use Double Spaces After a Period?!

The double spaces after a period argument has been debated ad nauseum, just do a quick search and you’ll see. Even the “experts” disagree on this topic. Which is why, as someone who grew up using typewriters and the first word-processors, and as both a grammar/punctuation fanatic and a professional designer and business owner, I’m here to clear it up!

Back when typewriters were the only alternative to hand-written pages, type was mono spaced. This means that every key took up the same amount of space, whether it was an “i” or an “m.” It sometimes made it difficult to visually determine a pause in a sentence, which is indicated by a comma, from the end of a sentence, indicated with a period. It also meant that sometimes there were larger and smaller spaces between letters. So, for no other reason than to improve visual readability, it became common practice to use two spaces after a period when using a typewriter. The space following all other punctuation was still a single-space.

offset_printingIt’s important to note here, that in offset printing, no double spaces were used. Older printing was “set” using individual letter blocks that were set one-by-one in a press. These letter blocks already accommodated for the differences in the width of letters and appropriate spacing after punctuation, so no double-spacing was required. The double spacing was solely for the purpose of legibility on typewriters. Additionally, having a single space shortened the overall text, and decreased printing and paper costs. Some say this also lead to the adoption of single-spacing.

Along came the first word-processors. Some of which were glorified typewriters with some automated functionality, but they quickly evolved into something that closely resembles the word processing we use today. And here’s why that’s important – word processors and the computers we use today have proportional type. Proportional type means that the computer font already accounts for both the width of each individual letter, and the appropriate visual spacing after punctuation. So there is no longer any need to add that old-fashioned double space. In fact, because it is already accounted for, adding a double space is adding much more space than is visually necessary and creates visual “rivers” through a block of type.

Professional designers and desktop publishers know this all to well and are very accustomed to removing all the double spaces when formatting a document. It’s one of the first things we do when we receive client-supplied or writer-supplied copy that has double spaces. (And some do this while mumbling expletives about double spaces after the period.) You can clearly see the difference between a document that uses single spaces versus one that uses double spaces. And then, pick up a newspaper or book and look at the spacing after the period — it’s single-spaced.

Some pro-single spacers will add the argument that even HTML disregards double spaces. I’m quite sure that this has nothing to do with the typewriter origin, and is simply related to the programming language, so it’s really not part of the “argument.”

While the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t say it’s wrong to add a double space, it does recommend a single space. Unless of course, you’re intentionally using a mono spaced font for an old-fashioned retro look. And in an age when people are shortening “for” to “4” and “later” to “l8r”  just to save a few keystrokes, it seems silly to continue to add that extra space that’s no longer needed.

Here is a very interesting read on the history of Double Spacing at the End of Sentences and punctuation. Spacing and punctuation even differed from English to French, and has a very interesting evolution. Enjoy!

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2 Responses to “Why Oh Why… Do Some People Still Use Double Spaces After a Period?!”

  1. Evan Says:

    Good read! I work in the design industry and I can’t tell you how many times I have to clear out excess spaces in documents provided by clients. To make matters worse, whenever I try to inform people that what they are doing is incorrect—they come back and say “well nobody has ever told me” or “that is how I was taught”. Now teachers (who learned to type on typewriters) are teaching children bad practices. Amazing.

    A good way to reverse this habit is to have Microsoft Word or other word processing applications auto-correct double spaces as it does with common typographical errors, lists, etc. This feature of course could be turned off if the double space is intended.

    Now if we could just teach the general public about hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes…

    • authorjen Says:

      Oh! Don’t get me started on hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes! I know designers who don’t know the difference.

      I get the same responses when I mention the double spaces, “That’s how I was taught!”

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