Some questions are just designed to start trouble.
- Do you think the Tea Party is the worst or best thing that’s happened to American politics?
- Are you pro-choice or pro-life?
- Do you think Julian Assange is a freedom fighter or a traitor?
- Do you put one space or two at the end of every sentence?
I’m not going to touch the first three imbroglios, but let me weigh in on the final one. I stand firmly on the side of one space.
Yes, I know some people will fight to the death for two. Take a look at this Yahoo questions page, in which an English teacher supports two spaces. I’m amused by the way she throws down her profession as if she were a doctor answering a question about strep throat or a certified general accountant addressing tax law. (Fortunately, she’s honest enough to report that her publisher disagreed and insisted on one space.)
Then there are the fence-sitters, who argue both sides against the middle. TypingCertification.com weighs the baby as King Solomon did and suggests slicing it in half. (In essence: Some people prefer the appearance of two spaces, it says, yet most mainstream publishers demand one.)
Me? I side with one. This is probably because I was, for many years, a senior editor at a large metropolitan daily. As a result, I had to spend countless hours deleting extra spaces that had been supplied by freelance writers who were enthusiastic but unschooled in the way of publishing. I was well paid, well educated, and highly skilled at editing. Yet every year I spent mindless hours deleting spaces after sentences. (Financial difficulties had started to hit newspapers by this time, so we no longer had assistants to perform this sort of task.)
Just in case you were wondering, the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style both specify a single space after a period. Even the Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in academia, recommends one space in published work. (It permits two only for draft manuscripts.)
So how did the two-space issue arise? It can be traced to the manual typewriter.
These old-fashioned devices use what’s known as monospaced type. This means that every character is given exactly the same amount of horizontal space. Think about the width of the letter “W” compared with the letter “I” and you’ll understand the problem. Such type tended to look irregular and uneven. So, adding an extra space at the end of every sentence made the text appear slightly less ugly and easier to read.
But here’s the deal: If you’re younger than 30, have you ever even used a typewriter? I’m guessing not. Even if you did use a typewriter in your youth (as I did—I wrote my honors thesis on one), monospaced fonts went out of fashion in the 1970s. Electric typewriters and, now, computers allow proportional typesetting, transforming the sometimes-ugly duckling of type into a beautiful swan.
That is, until some old-fashioned writer decides to become a GMO scientist and starts tracking in two spaces after every sentence.