Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 26, 2013

the great spaces-after-a-period controversy

A few months ago, Farhad Manjoo of Slate got a lot of attention — well, in my Twitter feed anyway — by writing a post telling us “Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.” Why? Because “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong. The case he makes is largely historical — but guess what? Manjoo’s history is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong:

Unfortunately, this whole story is a fairy tale, made up by typographers to make themselves feel like they are correct in some absolute way.  The account is riddled with historical fabrication.  Here are some facts:
  • There were earlier standards before the single-space standard, and they involved much wider spaces after sentences.
  • Typewriter practice actually imitated the larger spaces of the time when typewriters first came to be used.  They adopted the practice of proportional fonts into monospace fonts, rather than the other way around.
  • Literally centuries of typesetters and printers believed that a wider space was necessary after a period, particularly in the English-speaking world.  It was the standard since at least the time that William Caslon created the first English typeface in the early 1700s (and part of a tradition that went back further), and it was not seriously questioned among English or American typesetters until the 1920s or so.
  • The “standard” of one space is maybe 60 years old at the most, with some publishers retaining wider spaces as a house style well into the 1950s and even a few in the 1960s.
  • As for the “ugly” white space, the holes after the sentence were said to make it easier to parse sentences.  Earlier printers had advice to deal with the situations where the holes became too numerous or looked bad.
  • The primary reasons for the move to a single uniform space had little to do with a consensus among expert typographers concerning aesthetics.  Instead, the move was driven by publishers who wanted cheaper publications, decreasing expertise in the typesetting profession, and new technology that made it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to conform to the earlier wide-spaced standards.
  • The lies do not just come from random Slate writers or bloggers, but also established typographers, who seem to refuse the clear evidence that they could easily see if they examine the majority of books printed before 1925 or so.  Even an authority like Robert Bringhurst is foolish enough not to do his research before claiming that double spacing is a “quaint Victorian habit” that originated in the “dark and inflationary age in typography” of the (presumably mid to late) nineteenth century.

I love history. Real history, like this, not fake history, like Farhad Manjoo’s. Still: I hate seeing two spaces after a period (as in the very post I am quoting). An unhistorical judgment, but my own.

8 comments:

  • I like, and use for printed material, a space before and after both colon and semicolon. Neither belongs to the word that precedes it; rather, they indicate a relationship, and thus should be equally spaced between the preceding and following clauses.

    on the one-or-two space after period controversy, I say one space, and let InDesign etc work out the justification details for me.

    BTW, I teach design and typography for a living. my students hear me opine on topics like this. alas.

  • John, I like your style and your logic. You're tempting me to follow your lead....

  • Mr. VcVey, that's interesting. I've only heard of the practice of spacing before colons in one context: library cataloging, in which colons are preceded by a space in book titles (usually denoting the separation of title and subtitle). My understanding is that in our case it was originally done to provide a clearer visual break between the different portions of a title, especially in monospace typeface (as was used in printed catalog cards).

    And I must confess, I kind of like it. It really works well, and solves the problem in some proportional typefaces of colons and semicolons getting lost in certain letters like k or d.

    But I don't like double spaces after periods. It just seems like inefficient use of page space to me. And you definitely don't need it when using the common proportional typefaces in modern word processors/typesetters like MS Word.

    Frankly, all this distracts from the real scourge of contemporary type: sans-serif capital Is looking the same as lowercase ls in most Internet typefaces (not on this blog, thank goodness!). If you have ever heard someone speak of the former dictator of North Korea as "Kim Jong the Second", you know that against which I rail.

  • I happened to be reading Lewis Mumford's The Story of Utopias when I was distracted by this post. The book was originally published in 1922, though the copy I have is a revised and (I think) reset 1962 edition. It has wide spaces after the periods. Very wide spaces, as a matter of fact. It also has spaces before and after colons and semicolons. I hadn't realized that there was a logical reason for the latter practice, so I too thank Mr. McVey for the lesson. Still, though, the sight of punctuation marks hanging in midair disturbs me. I have an urge to nudge them a pica or so to the left.

  • People are really desperate to see their personal preferences as somehow objectively superior. I'm a single space guy myself but I don't pretend that it's anything but an idiosyncratic, aesthetic preference.

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  • The space before and after semicolons is an older (18c) typographic practice; I'd have to go back and look to see if my supposition that it also held for colons is right (but I think it is!).

    The one and two space after period practice is most apparent with typewritten text, that is monospaced.

    A shortcoming of my preference for space before and after colon and semicolon is that word processing will see the lone ";" as a word, and start a line with it if that's where it falls. You can't win.

    re: Nick Carr's "very wide spaces" account, I'll say this : a good typographer will ensure that spaces between words aren't excessive, by employing a variety of justification means and even including some leeway for glyph width. But that's a whole nuther can of worms.

    (earlier version deleted, to remove a typo.)

  • Fascinating post.

    Spacing around punctuation (apart from periods) is now the standard for French typesetting. It is a minor but not insignificant frustration for a typesetter trained in English, requiring hard-coded non-breaking spaces between quote marks and text, among other things.

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