Personal space

One space to bring them all and in the darkness book-bind them…

A casual observer, albeit one with access to Twitter and the patience to wade through my replies to other people yesterday, might think that I take Farhad Manjoo’s argument that you should never, ever use two spaces after a period much more seriously than I do.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t find it surprisingly fascinating. Because I did, enough to dig out my copy of the APA Publication Manual and argue the point over Twitter and elsewhere — although not enough to dig through more than a small handful of the comments on Manjoo’s original article. Internet comments can try any man’s patience.

From a writing perspective, I’m still not convinced it makes any significant difference how many spaces you use. Outdated or not, most style guides do suggest (or at least condone) the use of two spaces in draft manuscripts. And drafts are, by and large, the only thing that writers are themselves going to produce. It’s more an issue for publishers and typesetters than writers, quite frankly.

It’s also worth noting that the one remaining monospaced font mentioned in the article, Courier — which, as a monospaced font, would seem to suggest the continued need for two spaces after a period — is still the preferred manuscript font for many publications. According to author William Shunn’s oft-cited formatting guidelines:

For easy readability, limit your choice of font to either Courier or Times New Roman. Courier (my strong preference) is a monospaced font, which means that every character is exactly as wide as every other. It’s easier for an editor to detect spelling errors in a monospaced font than in a proportional font like Times New Roman (in which the “i” uses less horizontal space than the “m” does). With a monospaced font, there will also be fewer characters on each line, which can make your manuscript easier to scan.

Shunn goes on to acknowledge that “many writers have come to prefer Times New Roman” and that “either is usually acceptable,” but each publication is going to be different. Some editors won’t care what font you use, while some will be incredibly specific. I know Courier is the font I’d prefer to see when reading submissions to Kaleidotrope, for instance, but I won’t turn anything away as long as it’s at least readable. At work, we format the manuscripts we send to production in Times New Roman. As Jeff VanderMeer has noted, “Guidelines are among the roughest and least precise of god’s creatures. They’re usually there simply to ward off the most inappropriate of submissions.”

Vonda N. McIntyre’s manuscript preparation guidelines for the SFWA suggest using only Courier, adding:

The subject of proportional fonts is controversial. I recommend against them. Yes, they are prettier. But they were designed for publication, not for manuscripts. You mix typesetting and manuscript format at your peril.

I find this particularly interesting because John Scalzi, recently elected president of the SFWA, agrees with Manjoo, and quite strongly. But, as I wrote in response there:

In less formal (that is, the majority of) communication, it boils down mostly to two equally valid aesthetic choices — and/or is rendered moot by the automatic single-spacing that happens when, for instance, text is translated into HTML [browsers]. That is, it’s arguing over a pet peeve that’s almost never an actual issue, all in the name adhering to the way you were taught, or to proving the way we were all taught was wrong.

I thought Eric B. raised a few other interesting points over Twitter — he’s not wrong when he says, “There’s no *reason* most grammar rules have to be, other than readability and consistency.” — but I remain unconvinced. Does a difference in the number of spaces we use, one or two, truly impede readability, and is it actually an affront to consistency if my e-mails to you contain a different number of spaces than your e-mails to me? (Heck, even my dogged insistence on hyphenating “e-mail” puts me at inconsistent odds with a growing majority, yet I don’t think it’s unclear what I’m talking about. At least, not for that reason.)

In published documents, online or in print, meant for a wider audience than one’s own personal (or even internal business) communication, I do agree that one space should be the norm. Consistency should be the norm. But for draft manuscripts, particularly those written in that tenaciously monospaced Courier font, two spaces are in fact preferred. It may create a small amount of extra work for copyeditors and typesetters after the fact, who then need to turn those two spaces into one, but it creates less work for the editor who has to read the manuscript. And nowadays, that extra work shouldn’t often be more complicated than a few instances of find-and-replace.

For everything else, that personal and business communication I mentioned above, it either doesn’t matter, or one space is already the default. It comes down to aesthetics, which are important but subjective, and pet peeves, which are silly things to create rules around in the first place.

7 thoughts on “Personal space

  1. Whether one space or two is “more correct” is kind of a moot point for me, really. Two spaces was drilled into me early in life, and I am now physically incapable of not typing them.

    Also, I like Times New Roman.

  2. Bluster aside, there are a couple of points to make. The actual rule I was taught when I was learning typesetting is one space after a period for proportional fonts, two spaces after a period for monospaced fonts. There’s also another less formal typographer’s rule that you never use monospaced fonts.

    You are correct that this is more of a concern for publishers and typsetters, but circumstance and desktop publishing mean a lot of people are at least occasionally in those roles. Two spaces after periods in email is no big deal, but two spaces after a period in an otherwise nicely laid-out web site proposal really sticks out.

    • Yes, but by and large, don’t most web browsers default to one space, regardless of whether you type one or two? And I think it’s mostly internal consistency that matters. That is, it’s not such a big deal if your website, proportional fonts or not, uses two spaces, since it’s really not as terrible a design crime as some like to think; it’s only a real problem when you use one, then two, then one, and so on, with no conistency.

      And yes, in typesetting, a monospaced font is a bad idea. I do not want to read a book, or a website, or any kind of published material in Courier. But monospaced fonts still have their place, and therefore so does that nasty second space.

      My feeling is this: one space is better than two, except where two spaces are better than one, and most of the time it either doesn’t truly matter or is made moot by the set defaults of our technology.

  3. What I object to is the automatic gainsaying of… Oops. Sorry.

    What I object to is that MS Word and Blogger think I am wrong and change all my two spaces to one, and that drives me nuts.

    I also dislike sans serif fonts because a lower case “i” is tough to see (for months, I wondered what all the ads for “Pods” were because my eyes couldn’t distinguish the “i” from the “P”), and it’s difficult to tell between a number “1” and a lower case “l”.

    • The thing is, though: you are wrong.

      I’m not so much defending double-spacing after a period, since, outside of Courier, one space does tend to look better. I’m just saying: it’s not a big deal. In most contexts, in the situations most of us are going to run into, who cares if you’re wrong? Who, but the most pet-peeved, is going to notice? In typeset documents, it’s the typesetter’s job to adjust the spacing (perhaps assisted by someone in editorial or production and/or a quick find-and-replace), just as they adjust the font. Online, most browsers or blogging platforms will default to one space, and they aren’t going to use a monospaced font. I don’t know that Word should necessarily change all your double spaces to one, but Blogger almost certainly should.

      Serifs or no serifs is a separate issue, and there’s a case to be made on both sides. The default font here for posts is Verdana, a sans serif font (apart, I believe, weirdly, for its capital I), and I’ve never heard complaints. I know I’ve never had a problem reading it. That said, readability issues or not — issues that could probably be fixed with some simple browser settings, at least online — you should be using one space with practically all serif fonts, just as you would with sans serif. The exception, of course, is again Courier (slab serif, monospaced).

      But, again, my argument is this: most of the time, it doesn’t matter.

    • It is possible to get Word to not change stuff like that, if you sacrifice a chicken to it at the full moon… I mean, if you go in and fiddle with the AutoCorrect menu. I think.

      • In general, I do not approve of Word’s AutoCorrect feature, finding most of it annoying and obtrusive. I’m sure I have that selection, like many others, switched off, since I’ve never found it automatically changing double-spaces on me. (Even though it would usually be correct in doing so.)

        Funny, I don’t remember ever sacrificing a chicken… 😉

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