Notes From Babel

I’m for two-spaces

with 2 comments

Like many habits in English typography, there’s been a long-standing debate over whether one should use one space or two following a period ending a sentence.  Having an abnormal affinity for these sorts of questions, I’ve done my share of research and pondering of the question, and decided many years ago to use two spaces, for some reasons I’ll describe below.  But Farhad Manjoo’s recent invective against the practice is so vituperative as to make one wonder whether Farhad was, in tender youth, assailed by a gang of merciless two-space radicals, causing him now to spill his psychic rage onto the e‑pages of Slate.

But Manjoo’s catharsis is obnoxious if you’re actually looking for support for his bold claim that using two spaces is “totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”  Indeed, later in the piece, he admits the convention is “arbitrary.”  Arbitrary rules are certainly “arguable” in my book.

Anyway, the convention for law reviews, at least for the Chapman Law Review while I was assistant editor and later editor-in-chief, was to use two spaces.  In fact, my articles editors would frequently point out examples where an author’s omission of an extra space resulted in dreadful ambiguities.  This typically happens with abbreviations followed by proper nouns, such as “U.S. Department of _____.”  Without the extra space, the reader is constantly wondering whether “U.S.” ends the sentence or not.  For example:

SROCC has sixty-one IOSCO affiliate members; SROCC members include the Montreal Exchange in Quebec; the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada; the Market Regulation Services Inc. in Ontario, Canada; and the National Association of Securities Dealers, Inc. (NASD) and the NYSE in the U.S. Regional Standing Committees were established to address problems specific to regions in which certain IOSCO members are located.

Cheryl Nichols, The Importance of Selective Federal Preemption in the U.S. Securities Regulatory Framework: A Lesson from Canada, Our Neighbor to the North, 10 Chap. L. Rev. 391, 407 (2006) (internal footnotes omitted).  Now, tell me you didn’t have to double-back to determine where that first sentence ended, and I’ll buy you a Coke.

The Chicago Manual of Style, cited by Manjoo, actually provides no explanation for its one-space rule.  (CMS Rule 2.12.)  But the online version does, as follows:

A. The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was). But introducing two spaces after the period causes problems: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation); (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences); and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.

So, in our efficient, modern world, I think there is no room for two spaces after a period. In the opinion of this particular copyeditor, this is a good thing.

(Boldface added.)

Surely, the copyeditor who wrote this has never had occasion to test whether her words have ever successfully delivered their payload.  One advantage of the practice of law is it gives me frequent occasion to empirically measure the effect of my choices concerning language and syntax.  Colleagues have also shared their experiences concerning judges who have called attention to passages in legal briefs that make the eye strain in vain for a period or a semicolon to indicate the end of a long and winding thought.  Judges, like everyone else, do not like to spend their own effort to grasp ideas the writer failed to make clear.  A writer’s task is to make his ideas as plain as possible to his audience.  When a writer fails to make use of ready-at-hand tools to that end, such as the spacebar—the largest button on the keyboard, incidentally—he heaps more work upon his poor reader than he has a right to.  The reader will consequently be less likely to yield his trust and attention to such a stingy taskmaster who withholds from his reader something as trivial as a keystroke.

But most puzzling is the CMS Online’s suggestion that perhaps we can do without all our rules about syntax and typography, that we might do just as well by smashing all our words together into a homogenous blob as we do by dutifully purchasing the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and studiously observing its thousands of rules.  Quite a confession coming from within the ranks of the beast that thrives on solemn adherence to formality!  One wonders if the sentiment is reflected in Chicago’s return policy.

Putting aside the CMS Online copyeditor’s schizophrenia, I’m incredulous.  I agree with the general spirit expressed in the CMS itself:  the demarcation of ideas is important.  Indeed, the CMS pays scrupulous attention to delineating the differences among hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.  (CMS Rules 6.80–6.96.)  If it is important to clearly demarcate the separate ideas within sentences, surely it is at least as important to clearly demarcate the separate ideas within paragraphs.

Elsewhere, Tom Lee further explains why two spaces are better (though, incidentally, his use of em dashes enclosed by spaces is technically noncompliant with CMS standards):

Consider the typical structure of writing. Letters are assembled into words, which turn into phrases, which are arranged into sentences — at the same time being assigned to speakers, a neat trick — which are then combined into paragraphs.

It’s a chemical process, a perfect and infinitely flexible hierarchical system that should command our admiration. Being able to rationally examine, disassemble and interrogate the final product is a mark of the system’s beauty. Anything less is settling for a sort of holistic mysticism.

It’s disrespectful to let writing’s constituent elements bleed into one another through imprecise demarcations. If you see me “making mistakes with comma placement”, please rest assured that I’m doing it deliberately. In most cases the comma doesn’t belong to the phrase delimited by the quotation marks that enclose it. Placing an exclamation point or question mark to the left or right of a close-quote is a weighty decision! That we violate the atomic purity of quotations with injected commas is an outrage.

And though I don’t get quite as worked up about it, the same sort of thinking motivates my belief in the double space. Sentences deserve to be clearly delineated, but because of the complications of quotation, ellipses, interrogatives and exclamations (among others), there is no reliable punctuation that can be counted on as a terminator for sentences. Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words. The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.

(Boldface added.)

In language, where clarity—rather than peccadilloes about “holes in the page”—is king, two spaces is the better rule.


Written by Tim Kowal

January 15, 2011 at 11:55 am

2 Responses

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  1. Guilty as charged on the em dashes. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help finding it ugly without the spaces.


    January 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    • I know exactly what you mean. And I think many others agree. I tried to force the CMS rule when I externed for a California court of appeal judge, and he insisted I use the same convention as yours, though substituting an en dash for the em dash. The insistence and grandstanding of style manual editors only goes so far.

      Tim Kowal

      January 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm

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