One Space or Two?

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Picture the scene, if you will. You are sitting at your desk in your artist’s garret. All around you are the trappings of your authorly life. A glass of whisky, a thesaurus you nicked from a bloke called Roget, the empty space on the shelf where your Man Booker prize will go. One day.

You have just typed the first sentence of your latest and greatest masterpiece: “Satan’s Midnight Miniskirt”

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

dark and stormy night

Hmm. Good start. Gothic. Brooding. Moody. Now there’s going to be something about lightning, a wolf howl in the distance and a peasant wench with a frothy half moon cleavage.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You have typed the full stop or, as the colony borrowers call it, the period. Now your thumb is hovering over the long tall Sally key, aka the space bar.

space-bar-the-final-frontier

Ah, there’s the rub. Whether tis nobler in the mind to hit the spacebar once or twice. One space or two, my friends?

It transpires that this is one of those hideously divisive questions, a topic that nearly always crops up whenever authors get together. Perhaps just after the split infinitive and before the saidism.

Do you put one space or two space between sentences?

I know, I know. To a reader this is a non-subject. You have probably never thought about it. It doesn’t matter. Spaces between sentences are almost invisible pauses where you draw a breath before the next sentence whisks you into the rest of the story.

It matters to a writer. We live in dread that our next novel will be rejected by a cynical editor for committing some newbie error that we didn’t know existed. We can picture a hard-boiled editor throwing our manuscript in the bin simply because we have overdone the spaceage.

So we do what we always do in circumstances like this. We consult the oracle at Delphi, or as it is known in these modern days, we type the question into Google. Google is giving me 1.3 billion suggested web pages for “One space or two”. And I swear I can hear my PC quietly give a resigned sigh of “oh, no, not again.”

Then brace yourself for the howls of anger and outrage…

“Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”

Farhad Manjoo, Slate.com

“Why using two spaces after a full stop is wrong. Period … the one typographical atrocity that drives me nuts.”

Damian Thompson, The Telegraph.

The two spacers argue that they were taught that way. The one spacers respond by saying “That was in the days of typewriters, Grandad. You don’t need to two space with a word processor.”

For many, this is the killer point. We two-spaced on typewriters because they had mono-spaced fonts. Every character took up the same amount of space on the page, which led to lonely stick letters like I and squished up chunky letters like w and m.

Back in those dark days we needed to give our full stops (periods) a little bit of help by double spacing. We now don’t need to do this because most word processors use proportional fonts. The clever little elves working away behind the screen automatically put in a little bit of extra space around a piece of punctuation.

And there we have a definitive answer. Two spaces are bad. “Completely, utterly and inarguably wrong.” A “typographical atrocity”. A relic of the pre-computer era. A dinosaur. We should all move over to one space.

As a story, it is all nice and neat and logical, isn’t it? The word processor made the double space extinct.

Hmm. Well, no. Not quite. There is more to this story than meets the eye.

First, there is an interesting article here which argues that the move from two spaces to one isn’t some technical requirement based on changing technology. It is as much a question of style and economics.

It seems that the change from double space to single space happened gradually over a long period of time which is not closely related to the advent of word processors. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style dropped the requirement for a double space after a full stop/ period in its 1949 edition.

That is 1949. Waaay waaay before we were using word processors.

office-interior-1940s

This means that the neat argument of word processors driving the double space extinct really doesn’t wash. It is a convenient explanation and we all like convenient explanations. But it doesn’t seem to have a factual basis.

Word processors make double spacing unnecessary, but that isn’t the only reason that the style has changed. It was changing anyway.

I saw something similar over a discussion of cottage pie vs shepherd’s pie. There is a school of thought that shepherd’s pie has to be made with lamb, because shepherd’s kept sheep. Cottage pie must be made from beef, presumably because people who live in cottages always keep cows. Or something like that.

It’s a nice and tidy explanation. Unfortunately it has no historical basis whatsoever. The original recipes for cottage pies and shepherd’s pies have nothing to do with cottages or shepherds. They could be made with any minced meat – lamb, beef, pork, chicken. It was a marketing gimmick to sell mincing machines. The distinction between lamb and beef was invented in the last 50 years as another marketing gimmick by supermarkets to sell more ready meals.

And yet some people will insist on the shepherd=lamb thing as if it is a self-evident truism, an absolute fact. The eleventh commandment – “thou shalt make thy shepherd’s pie with lamb”.

We like neat stories and simple rules, even if they are made up.

Back to single/ double spaces. What seems to be happening here is a question of style and convention. Those of us of a certain vintage, including me, were taught to double space. It just so happens that this was in a time when we were clunking away on manual typewriters.

Then the style changed. The prevailing style at the moment is to single space and let the word processor worry about the appearance of the letters on the page. That’s the style that we ought to be using in the majority of situations, unless we are dealing with an editor or publisher who specifically asks for double spacing.

It’s (sort of) official. Single spacing has won.

That does not mean that double spacing is inherently wrong or that single spacing is inherently right. It’s a convention. A style thing. It could change again in the future.

There is something else here, something a little darker. There is a natural human tendency to want to prove other people wrong. Some people, maybe all of us some of the time, actually enjoy seeing other people making mistakes.

We get a thrill when we see someone breaking one of our rules, because this means that we can step in and correct them. And by implication prove ourselves right again.

wrong on the internet

You see this a lot on the roads. Some drivers love it when other drivers forget to cancel their indicators/ turn signals. They get positively priapic when they see someone talking on the phone.

road-rage-problem

The double space/ single space argument has a large element of that. The most vociferous single spacers positively enjoy it when someone has the temerity to use a double space. That gives them permission to launch into their self-appointed rule enforcement rant.

To sum up. If you are an author, you probably ought to single space unless you are writing for a publication that wants double spacing. That’s the prevailing convention and the safest course.

You will come across people who double space because that is how they were taught and it’s what they are used to. Be gentle with them. Please don’t try to prove them wrong with spurious stories about typewriters and word-processors. Styles and technology change over time and they are not always related to each other.

If you are a reader, you probably didn’t know that this debate even existed, which is how it should be.

Now where was I? Ah, yes…

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

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2 thoughts on “One Space or Two?

  1. Not a writer but we regularly have this argument in the office. I’m a single spacer but the guy who sits next to me double spaces as that’s how he was taught. He’s a young guy but grew up on a small Scottish island. Guess their education is a bit different. I go through everything he writes and delete all those pesky extra spaces.

    Liked by 1 person

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