There’s a widespread misconception that “proper” English requires two word spaces after a sentence. And that’s understandable. After all, when professional printers of English works began changing to single sentence spacing in the first half of the twentieth century, there was no announcement. There were no ads in papers and no town criers on street corners heralding the change. And as the muted tapping of word processors and computers replaced the steady “clack clack” of the typewriter a few decades ago, major style guides quietly changed their guidance to a single space as well. Again, there were no highway billboards and no airplane banners. Like many English language conventions, usage simply changed over time.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that people are shocked when they hear that what they learned was “correct” in typing class is no longer generally accepted by experts and almost never appears in professionally printed works today. What’s strange about this particular topic is, (1) how upset people get when they learn about the change, and (2) that people have seen the change for decades without even realizing it. A well-read friend of mine laughed when I brought this up a couple of years ago, saying, “go check a book for yourself—two spaces!” I’ve encountered others who say they’ll only change to one space when books and magazines make the change. Of course, they’ve no doubt read thousands of books and magazines. The single space between sentences just didn’t register with them. There’s endless amusement to be had by reading on the Web about this topic as well. A Web comment drawing attention to the “two spaces I’m using here that I will always use” is inevitably (and angrily) followed by one along the lines of, “Hey, who deleted my extra spaces?” They’ve read plenty of Web pages, no doubt, but never realized that HTML simply strips out the extra spacing.
This misconception is shared by some surprising people. In late 2009, I was helping my two nieces apply for college in New York State. After reviewing their application letters, I asked them why they were putting two spaces between sentences. “That’s the way we were taught in high school,” they replied. “Did they tell you why?” I asked. “No.” It was my turn to be shocked. An informal survey of some local teachers was revealing. Few knew about the change.
Unfortunately, the main culprit in this misconception is a lack of knowledge. Advice from typographers, publishers of style guides, and grammarians existed, of course; it just wasn’t collected in one place. So, I was glad to see the Wikipedia “Sentence spacing” article created in 2010. It helped to fill the knowledge gap.
It may be years, even decades, before this change is applied consistently by the average typist. But at least this repository of knowledge now exists so people can make informed decisions. And who knows? In fifty or a hundred years, extra spacing may be back in vogue.