You might have noticed that I have a “thing” about grammar. That extends to the use of punctuation. Imagine my surprise when I was pulled over by the linguistic police last evening for using a double space after a period. Now for those of you who learned, as I did, to type on a typewriter, that’s not an error. In fact, it’s a mistake if you don’t use two spaces between a period and the start of the next sentence.
Not according to the current AP Style Guide as well as a few others. That second space just wandered off and I didn’t notice. Damn shame, but you know there’s a business point lurking.
As near as I can tell, the second space was used at the end of sentences because early versions of type weren’t proportional:
The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts.
That’s from an article from Slate with which I disagree, but it does lay out the issue nicely enough. But let’s address the business point. The double space came about as a best practice – it makes reading easier. I’m a big fan of best practices, but that’s not even the point of which I was thinking.
Like most folks over 40, I went through high school and college preparing papers on a typewriter. If one made a mistake or decided to make changes, it wasn’t as easy as cut and paste. We retyped the entire thing again (unless one had the foresight to separate sections with a lot of blank space – a page break in today’s terms). The lesson was we learned to do things carefully – you were given some leeway for the use of white-out to correct typos, but not much.
The technology today – the same stuff that negates the need for two spaces – makes users feel as if spelling and grammar aren’t important – the software will find the errors and help make corrections. The double space made it easier to read the papers we typed and missing one was one of the errors for which we had to look carefully. As you read the web today notice how many misplaced apostrophes (it’s vs. its) and homophones (they’re and their, your and you’re) you find. It’s because the software doesn’t (yet) check for context and can’t find those errors. Making sure we double-spaced the end of sentences also made us prepare and check the rest of the document carefully.
I’m going to continue to use the double space. You can’t take it away. Sue me. I realize it’s an anachronism but I’m trending that way myself, I guess. However, making sure we’re writing and proofing isn’t old school – it’s just good business.