Vexed issues—Two Spaces Versus One?
Ask any group of people whether you should use one or two spaces after a period, and you’re likely to spark a lively, even acrimonious, debate. In fact, the uses of one or two spaces after periods, question marks, exclamation points, and colons has long been subject to the vagaries of shifting trends. One myth holds that the printing press enabled publishers to conserve on space by leaving only a single space after the period and its ilk. The typewriter, the same myth holds, required two spaces to make uniform spacing where some keys introduced letters like m that seemed wider than letters like i. In this view, the two spaces are the equivalent of the now-famous QWERTY keyboard phenomenon. The QWERTY phenomenon, named for the first five letters to the left of keyboards everywhere, came about when the inventors of the typewriter tried to avoid the clumping together of the most-frequently used keys by dotting them around the keyboard, where users needed to rely on non-dominant fingers to produce common vowels. Although inventors resolved the problem early in the typewriter’s development, other innovators nevertheless reproduced the now-redundant QWERTY layout.
But the one-space theory reveals itself to be a myth if you gave a quick glance into books typeset in the nineteenth century, long before the invention of typewriters. In nineteenth century books, spaces tend to be wide—at least two character widths. However, by the mid-twentieth century, printers already capitalized on the single space convention to economize on paper, making books slightly shorter in saving a space after all punctuation ending with a period. Despite this shift to one space, standard practice in schools dictated two spaces to students who learned what was first dubbed “typing,” and, later, “keyboarding.” In fact, this “rule” continues to persist in classrooms even today.
Meanwhile, graphic designers began observing the single-space “rule” as early as the late 1980s, in response to fully-digital layout and printing. In the old world of “hot type,” writers created text, recreated by printers who painstakingly assembled individual letters and spaces to create pages on first, wooden and, later, metal type. But with “cold type,” writers created text that graphic designers laid out as it would appear when printed, part of a fully digital process. Whatever you wrote on your computer remained unchanged and untranslated by any manual labor between your fingers and the document in which it ultimately appeared. When I worked in advertising, eagle-eyed clients, as early as 1988, demanded that I delete the “extra” space between a period and the beginning of the next sentence.
Want a more definitive rule? The Chicago Manual of Style in 1914 advocated two spaces after a period. However, the latest edition of the same authoritative manual now requires only a single space after colon, question mark, parentheses, or exclamation point. You might think of the single-space rule as a means of enabling you to meet character limitations—and of making your writing acquire at least a scintilla of the appearance of brevity.