Slate Invaders: Why You Should Use Two Spaces Between Sentences

This may not look like much of a programming related piece, but it is, at least peripherally -- because of the matter of fixed width fonts, if nothing else. Programmers rely heavily on fixed width fonts to make reading, writing, and editing source code much easier and less error-prone. In addition, it is in part for the same reasons I am inclined toward thinking like a programmer that I think much of what I do about this subject.

So, without further ado . . .

Slate featured an opinion piece by Farhad Manjoo about spacing between sentences, Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. If you are a programmer, a pedant, mildly prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior, thoughtful, or all of the above (like me), you might notice Farhad's second mistake right away: he does not consciously realize he is actually talking about spaces between sentences, and not spaces after periods per se.

He goes on a two-page rant about the reasons that everybody he knows other than journalistic publishing professionals is just dead-wrong about how many spaces should be used between sentences; only he and those in his immediate professional sphere know the Secret Mysteries of Proper Spacing Between Sentences (or After Periods, in his imprecise phrasing). Meanwhile, as I type this, my sentences are all separated by two spaces where they are not separated by paragraph breaks.

The points in his argument break down like this:

  1. Julian Assange is a blowhard with a "puffed-up personality" whose writing is "overwrought, self-important, and dorky," so we definitely do not want to be associated with him by using two spaces between sentences like that guy.

  2. Continuing with his personal assault on Assange, he points out that using two spaces between sentences is "antiquated":

    Here's a fellow who's been using computers since at least the mid-1980s, a guy whose globetrotting tech-wizardry has come to symbolize all that's revolutionary about the digital age. Yet when he sits down to type, Julian Assange reverts to an antiquated habit that would not have been out of place in the secretarial pools of the 1950s: He uses two spaces after every period.

  3. Monospace typewriters are to blame for two spaces between sentences becoming a fairly universal standard due to the technical limitations of the devices, and the oldness of typewriters apparently offends him. As a result, a strong mid-20th century tradition of inserting two spaces between sentences arose. Traditions like that (unless they are traditions that support his own preferences) are bad, and should be stamped out, because they are not modern enough:

    The only reason today's teachers learned to use two spaces is because their teachers were in the grip of old-school technology. We would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that's what was popular back when they were in school.

  4. While two spaces between sentences makes sense for monospace fonts (a rare admission from this man), "we've all switched to modern fonts" -- where "modern" apparently means "proportional" and not "monospace".

  5. Readability is better with only one space than two, Farhad asserts.

  6. . . . but really, there is no proof that either one space or two is better for readability in any case, because he cannot find any studies linking the number of spaces between sentences with effects on readability. It is all abitrary. Since it is all arbitrary, we should just use his arbitrary preference.

  7. Using two spaces between sentences is the action of aesthetically challenged Philistines, of mere commoners without Farhad's rarefied and clearly superior tastes:

    Two-spacers are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.

  8. Journalistic periodical typographers use single-spacing between sentences. Though he probably does not know many typographers personally, the typographers he does know are all the typographers he knows, and that must be equivalent to all typographers holding the same opinion. Of course, he may not actually know their opinions. Maybe Farhad is just assuming an opinion on the matter based on the fact that Slate is typeset with single spaces between sentences.

    This is a matter of a long and august tradition, in fact, dating back to the early 20th century at least -- aside from the fact that he also complains about the opposite being the tradition in the mid-20th century. Because of the tenure of this tradition, this respected way of doing things decreed by some small subset of people who care, it should be followed without question.

  9. Typing two spaces between sentences is too much work for his delicate hands.

After laying out these -- well, let's call them "compelling" for now -- arguments, he goes on to indoctrinate the mythical children who might waste their time reading something like this on Slate in the proper response to their teachers teaching them something:

So, kids, if your teachers force you to use two spaces, send them a link to this article. Use this as your subject line: "If you type two spaces after a period, you're doing it wrong."

Obviously, offending your teachers based on the say-so of some Slate writer you have never met is a fantastic approach to life. Before doing so, however, I exhort such children to please research the matter in a little more depth. Let us examine some counterarguments.

Point By Point Responses

1. Julian Assange is Wrong! Don't Be Him!

It does not matter one bit whether Julian Assage is a blowhard (he probably is, but the pot at Slate has little room to call that kettle black), a terrorist (because he embarrassed some politicians), a pedophile (because he was attracted to a nineteen year old, apparently), or anything else you might dislike, as long as none of that has anything to do with typography.

Farhad's implicit argument here is that using two spaces to separate sentences is bad because Julian Assange uses two spaces. It is far more important to recognize such logical fallacies than it is to use a single space, especially considering that a lot of modern technology will throw away the second space anyway (such as common word processing programs, or (X)HTML -- thus the proportionally modified single spacing beteen sentences on this page at the time of this writing).

I am pretty sure his main reason for mentioning Assange was better Google indexing, anyway.

2. Being Old is Bad! Don't Use Old Stuff!

Using obsolete technologies and techniques when there are better options available in the modern world is often counterproductive. Conflating mere age with obsolescence is dangerous, however. Arguments to the effect that Common Lisp or C is a "bad" programming language because the basics of it were developed decades ago, and everybody should be using Java (which is also actually getting a little long in the tooth now) or even Erlang instead, is just asking for trouble. C is still where a lot of systems development happens, and for good reason. The LISP family of languages in general, and Common Lisp in particular, is still the source of language design features that are incorporated in new languages to make them fresh, exciting, and "innovative", even if Common Lisp does have a heck of a lot of parentheses and cryptically named functions in it. Make sure you know the difference between "old" and "obsolete" before abandoning an "old" technology or technique, even if both words start with the letter O.

3. Teachers are Wrong! Tradition is bad!

I have no idea where Farhad gets the idea that "we" (as a society at large) "would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas". Pushing outmoded, patently ridiculous, political and otherwise corrupt biases on children is a substantial percentage of what teachers push on kids. Regardless, this argument isn't so much an argument in itself as a repeat of the previous argument combined with emphatic denunciation of teachers who disagree with him, just because they disagree with him.

4. Monospace is Dead! Proportional is Everywhere!

Rumors of the demise of monospace typefaces are grossly exaggerated. Fixed width fonts are actually still in heavy use in a number of fields of endeavor, including the legal profession, manuscripts that are printed for editing, screenplays, and -- it will surely come as no surprise to readers of blogstrapping -- for programming, configuration files, and scads of other computer-related contexts where the column-width location of a given character might be important. Many mail user agents, text editor application and input fields, and source viewers default to fixed width presentation because of the benefits provided when trying to read technical subject matter. In fact, while forcing lawyers, editors, and actors to deal solely in proportional typefaces might annoy them (perhaps worse than making readers of Slate read monospace), it would probably not have an apocalyptic effect on their work. Doing the same to programmers, though, would have disastrous consequences. I am convinced that initial bug rates in new software would increase significantly, perhaps as much as 50%. Heaven forfend you should demand that Python coders (essentially the Slate writers of the programming world, in terms of their righteousness in defense of Good Style) use proportional typefaces. They might just stab you repeatedly with something blunt -- and, frankly, I don't know that I'd blame them, given the indentation constraints of the language.

In essence, just about any field of endeavor that requires any nontrivial technical attention to detail, rigorous expertise, or exacting presentation in textual works -- including a whole lot of mathematical and scientific notation -- uses fixed width fonts. Writing for Slate is obviously not one of those fields.

Aside from that, however, there are even cases where the simple, pure aesthetic appeal of something can be enhanced by the use of a monospace typeface.

5. Using Two Spaces Makes Holes! That's Hard to Read!

Farhad fails to really back up his assertion that readability suffers when using two spaces. He hand-waves about it by quoting someone talking about "pausing" between sentences while reading. He talks about how typographers think it diminishes readability (with their incisive and insightful reasons: because they say so), and complain about it. He quotes the utterly uncompelling argument of one, thus:

When I see two spaces I shake my head and I go, Aye yay yay.

I am pretty sure he means "ai ai ai", like the song. "Aye" means "yes", and "yay" is an exclamation of delight, and I am almost completely certain that is not what he meant to convey.

In any case, his very weak attempt at an argument from authority ignores the fact that this is a fallacious argument form, and that none of this fallacy's presentation actually shows any meaningful evidence or argument in support of his position. It just shows that a couple people agree with him. Give me ten minutes on a street corner and a bag of chocolate bars, and I can probably beat his rate of agreement.

6. All Arguments are Arbitrary! Mine are Best!

I hope I do not have to explain to anyone how ridiculous an argument this is.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the arguments are not all arbitrary. There are very real, practical arguments to be made, including the cost savings reasoning in favor of using only one space (please, let this not become yet another "green" initiative).

More to the point, though, the lack of studies on the subject is not due to a lack of practical effect the number of spaces between sentences has on readability. It is due to factors like the difficulty of isolating variables that can be used to measure the readability effects of different inter-sentence spacing schemes, and to the fact that for the most part the people most likely to have both the resources and the interest to pursue such studies are also even more strongly motivated to save their money. They want to save not only the money that would be spent on the studies, but also the money that would be spent on publishing costs if it turned out more than one character-width space would be conducive to easier reading. More on that later.

Regardless of studies, people who read a lot, and really enjoy reading (like me), agree that having more than a single (proportional or otherwise) character width of space between sentences provides a more effective cue to the reader where sentences end and following sentences begin. This provides improved reading comprehension by separation of concepts embodied in adjacent sentences, and speeds up the reading and information absorption process by reducing error and confusion levels when scanning quickly through text. There are many potential counters to this argument of mine, but nobody has anywhere produced anything actually compelling to dispute my point as far as I have seen, and a great many people have made the same point elsewhere, so you may ignore this point if you dislike it but please do not pretend you can disprove it without actually presenting any proof.

The best case scenario for the Farhad set, here, seems to be that it is a wash, and he gains zero points at all with this. That, at least, would be an improvement over the rest of his argument.

7. Typographers are Right! Tradition is good!

Farhad accidentally admits that those whose motivations are more strongly oriented toward readability than saving page space, as contrasted with his own profession, prefer two spaces:

The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I've received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces.

One can probably safely assume this is because Farhad is unable to conceive of someone having different priorities than him, especially considering he is apparently not aware of his own profession's priorities. After all, press releases are not subject to the same kinds of space limitations as a book, magazine, or newspaper on a paper budget; their limitations are based more on actual pithiness, memorability, readability, and general appeal. Slate, meanwhile, is all about making self-satisfied statements demonstrating the elite superiority of its readers over the readers of other periodicals, and of its writers over other periodicals' writers and even over Slate's readers.

Oh, yeah -- and Slate is about saving money on printing costs.

8. Don't Question Authority! Conform!

The basis of this argument is actually kind of interesting to examine.

According to Farhad, typographers made some kind of transition from nobody following any of the same standards to all using the same standard: one space. He glosses over two facts. One is the fact that typography in some fields differs on the subject from typographers in other fields (namely, those with which he is familiar). While his favored fields are the more widely obvious, and his perspective on the matter might in that regard be somewhat understandable, there is still that other issue: the fact that his version of typographic history making a clean, mass transition from "no standard" to a single-space "standard", is simply incorrect.

The truth is that using two spaces grew out of a typographic convention of using a 1.5-width space that was favored by typesetters for proportional typefaces. At the time, it was generally recognized that additional space to mark the separation between sentences was desirable as a guide for the eye to improve readability. The 1.5 convention arose in part because full space leads were used a lot, and half-space leads were not used so much, so two full spaces would use up more leads that could be put to better use elsewhere (such as between words within a sentence).

The advent of typewriters was, as Farhad asserts, instrumental in making the transition to using two full spaces. Typewriters were essentially rudimentary, fixed width typesetting machines, and there was no half-space key on the typical typewriter. Even if there had been a half-space key, the greater convenience of hitting the spacebar twice rather than having to remember to hit the spacebar once and the half-space key once would have proved discouraging for most typists, but the single space approach would have been worse for its effect on readability.

9. Laziness Beats Rigor! Don't Make Me Work!

Frankly, this guy could probably use a little more diligence and effort in his life.

Beyond that, he said nothing of substance in his complaint about it being too hard to use more than one space, so I feel no compulsion or duty to offer a more nuanced response.

Why One Space?

The real reason for using only one space is much simpler and far less idealistic than Farhad's favored self-justifications. Simply put, journalistic typesetters adopted the convention of using a single space to separate sentences at the insistence of accountants. Using more spaces between sentences means using more paper for the same number of non-space characters printed on the page. More paper means more money spent. As the gatekeepers of the most widely distributed publications, publishers who cared that much about saving paper had ample opportunity to propagandize the world toward the ends of making what was cheaper for them appear "correct" to everyone else, and Farhad Manjoo carries on that miserly tradition proudly, even if he does so with a wide range of arguments that are (in the best cases) unconvincing to anyone who knows something about the subject in general. Of course, as we increasingly move toward nearly-solely electronic distribution of journalistic content, even the cost savings argument is losing traction.

Why Two?

In addition to the arguments already explained above, there are other reasons to prefer two spaces over one. For instance:

What else do you need?