The Curious Misconception Surrounding Sentence Spacing

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.

Text from Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, published in New York in 1885.

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.

Text from a 2005 Penguin Books edition of Edward Gibbon’s work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published between 1776 and 1789.

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.

Posted by on May 24, 2011
Filed Under Books, Typography | 6 Comments

  • Robert O’Rourke

    I’ve heard from various sources (sadly none were backed up by science) that provide conflicting theories on the notion that double-spacing can help people who have dyslexia to read text. As a result some people I know swear by it and want HTML to respect double spaces but personally I don’t see the point. Possibly because I was never taught to do it. In terms of making things easier to read for dyslexics colour & contrast have much more to do with it.

  • Tan Le

    Double-space was a way to compensate formatting on a manual typewriter with fixed-width, monospace letterform keys. In modern digital typesetting, fonts are created with kerning tables that allocate custom inter-letter and inter-word spacing based on typeface widths and proportions, with legibility in mind.

    Some typefaces have better space/kerning tables than others, but all will have the appropriate space allowance after a period, before the start of a new sentence. The proper space is designed into the font. So there’s no need to double space.

    With due respect, dyslexia causes readers to see unintended patterns, horizontally and vertically, in blocks of type. Large gaps created by double spaces after periods only increases the frequencies of these “rivers” in blocks of type — and would probably worsen legibility for dyslexics.

    Respect the typeface as it was designed to be used. Don’t double space.

  • Ryan

    Typography on The Radio.

    Not sure if you were aware of the article mentioned in this CBC broadcast of Q or of the debate that arose from it (so weird to hear someone say monospaced fonts on the radio) but the segment was repeated yesterday, thought I’d share:

  • Mark
  • Nick

    Who says? I find a larger space between sentences and between words intra-sentence makes text more readable.
    Now, that larger space needn’t be double the word space, but for most of us, most of the time, that’s the only pragmatic option we have. Most word processing software doesn’t provide an *easy* way of making, say, a 50% larger space — we just get to bang the space bar.

  • Felicity

    I was taught all through school to use two spaces after a sentence (or a colon), but almost as soon as I started desktop publishing (1991), I noticed that professional publications were only using one space…so I switched.

    Now, however, seeing two spaces after a sentence makes me feel nostalgic. Interesting digression: in the graphic novel Watchmen, both practices are shown. Books and newspaper and magazine clippings use one space, while typewritten correspondence (either on a typewriter or an early Macintosh) uses two.