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 Outdated or not, most style guides do suggest (or at least condone) the use of two spaces in draft manuscripts.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.
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.