The Great Space Debate: To Single- or Double-Space After a Period

A while back, I declared my allegiance to the serial comma, and I am ready to take another stand.

I believe that double-spacing after a period at the end of a sentence is outdated, clunky, and typographically unsound. (While I’m at it, I also believe that college football’s postseason format is fraudulent, the designated hitter rule is silly, Conan O’Brien was treated unfairly, and Arrested Development was taken off the air way too soon.)

This is not exactly a cutting-edge opinion, but there are still plenty of people out there using the antiquated post-period double space. This is fine if you’re writing e-mails or crafting ransom notes from magazine clippings, but if you’re creating professional-quality printed materials, the single space is the way to go.

monospace-1The double space after periods was a standard in the days of typewriters, which used monospaced typefaces in which each letter or grammatical mark, whether a capital M or an apostrophe, is given the same amount of space. The typeface Courier, pictured here with ugly, gaping double-space holes after the periods, mimics a typewriter and is an example of a monospaced typeface. (Note the way the characters line up in columns, delineated here with pinstripes, because of the monospacing.) The thinking at the time was that the double space helped provide a visual break between sentences, but when the computer came along and allowed for more subtle variations in spacing, the double space became obsolete.

proportional-1Since the advent of the computer, most typefaces are proportional, allotting the appropriate amount of space for each typographic character, including spaces after periods. See the typeface Minion, set with elegant, contemporary single spaces, in the example here.

These days, most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press, call for the single space. Another proponent of the single space is Robin Williams (the not-funny female graphic designer and author, not the not-funny male actor), who has written several books on technology and graphic design, such as The Mac is Not a Typewriter, The PC is Not a Typewriter, and The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

You’ll notice that nearly all professionally designed printed materials (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) utilize the single space. The double space after a period looks especially silly if you are using justified type, which already skews word- and letterspacing to force lines of text into a certain amount of space.

The proponents of two spaces after a period seem to harp on the same point: I was taught that way. Many are trying to stop but can’t. Others refuse to hear reason, desperately clinging to their Sholes & Glidden typewriter in one hand, waving the jagged end of a broken moonshine bottle at you with the other.

In the end, there is technically no right or wrong when it comes to spacing after periods, unless you are obligated to follow one of the many style guides out there that call for the single space. But then again, there’s technically no right or wrong when it comes to wearing tapered jeans and paisley shirts, and people do that, too.

19 thoughts on “The Great Space Debate: To Single- or Double-Space After a Period

  1. I don’t know how you wrote this post without busting me out for being the classic post-period double-spacer. If I have the same opportunity to bust you out in the future…get ready.

    I have to say for me it is 97% bad habit, the other 3% is to annoy you. I took typing in high school (primarily to meet girls that proved unsuccessful) and it was driven into me to double space. It has been a hard habit to break.

    If you really care about something you invest in it. When the Steinbrenner family speak, players listen. Or I guess I should say, when the Steinbrenner family checkbook speaks, players listen.

  2. This is great – print people calling for an end to double-spacing! I thought that this was a war being fought from a webbie standpoint only.

    On the web, especially before browsers took to zooming the whole page contents and used to just increase text size, changing text size on screen could lead to a double space appearing across a line break, making the second sentence appear to be indented by one space.

    There’s also no way in html to have a double space without inserting a non-breaking space character ( ) which is very bad coding for accessibility, search engines and other web designers (who will scoff at your code and make you feel inadequate).

    I’m currently trying to explain to my web editors why they shouldn’t get hung up about en-dashes and em-dashes within web text. And why they can’t put them or indeed any special character into text for a page title. Page titles have a hard time, they get picked up by search engines, fed into RSS feeds, squished into Twitter posts and end up in all kinds of places you didn’t plan for. And special characters (like $ or & or even incongerous looking “) end up making them really, really ugly.

    So, IDB boys, how about a blog post all about the right and wrongs of grammer, design and the confines of the web. Would certainly help me out!

  3. Talk to my thumb – it can crank out those double spaces in the blink of an eye. I learned my alphabet on an old royal typewriter when I was 2 1/2 years old, and could type before I could write. So, I always use the DS, and yes, I notice it when the rest of the world doesn’t and it drives me crazy. But then, I’m an old fart. I suppose you’re also a proponent of “Gr8″ and “ROFL” – or do you type those out because it was “the way you were taught?” Ah, well. In a competition of rapid thumb-clicks, I have a feeling we both know who will win. And hey, while we’re at it, gimme my moonshine bottle back!

  4. While I agree with you on the serial comma, college football’s postseason, and Conan O’Brien, I’m going to have to disagree with you on two spaces after a period and whether the actor Robin Williams is funny. I find it particularly humorous that you skew your persuasive piece with adjectives such as “ugly” and “gaping” for the non-preferred format, versus “elegant” and “contemporary” for the Paul-endorsed option. I prefer two spaces, and find your Minion example busy, with no breaks for the eye to get a preview of where the sentence will end. Legal writing still calls for two spaces post-period.

  5. Content (and grammar) aside, I truly enjoyed the glaring illustration of how America’s sports teams make tremendous amounts of money for basically entertainment. Why can’t we lowly interpreters and other fine educators be valued that way? Down with organized sports and over-payment!!!!! :)

  6. I’ve been inventing a new 3-fingered way to type on the iPhone’s squished keyboard. It’s much faster. I’ll have to show you, sometime. I just don’t have time to unlearn the double space..but purely out of laziness–not aesthetics, sorry. Who really cares about Conan– he was never funny anyway…just funny looking.

  7. Double spacing is easy on the eye. Why not delineate a new sentence? Give it the stature it deserves with two spaces.

    I suppose you end sentences in prepositions too? I don’t care what Strunk and White say, that is just wrong.

    Great post!

  8. I´m designer and museologist of Argentina, and become a fan of your page and your book, thanks to help us to work better every day!!!

  9. I love the way that you write with humor, Paul! Your topic is timely and your approach, very engaging. Great article!

  10. I learned this in a graphic design class years ago, yes, but the problem is typing has become something I do without thinking, so I’ve never been able to change the way my fingers type. IS THERE A FUNCTION IN ANY word processing or graphic design program to automatically remove the DS???

  11. I love the serial comma, but I also love double spaces after my periods. That’s the way I was taught as a freshman in high school so it’s a very hard habit to break. It comes so naturally. As Heidi said, I don’t even think about it. The most important thing for me though is consistency. If someone only wants to use one space, that’s fine as long as a double space doesn’t show up somewhere.

  12. I have to say I think the DS is the way to go. Easier on the eye. Yes, at times to fit the text in a SS, but in general I will always DS.

  13. Shea: You’ll get yours.

    Charlie: The web forces us away from the double space, but it also forces us away from important characters that you mention like the en-dash or em-dash, not to mention many of the accents you find in languages other than English, which is a shame.

    Chris: You’ll never see a “gr8″ or “ROFL” out of me because I like words and I’m not 13.

    Lacy: I think I need to develop a logo for the “Paul-endorsed option.”

    Patricia and Jess: You’re my favorite readers ever.

    Heidi: When I design anything, I do a find and replace, changing all double spaces to single spaces.

    Old people who still double space: You’re proving my point.

  14. If I was more technology savvy, I would know about the “find and replace” option when it comes to changing your spaces. Unfortunately, I always forget about that. So, when my thesis reader made me go back and replace all the single spaces in my paper with double spaces, I had to do it one at a time. Never again! The next time I write a thesis, I will single space and be proud of it. Thanks to Paul’s article, I can justify it as well. Or…I can just never go to grad school again.

  15. Shea, why were you trying to meet girls that proved unsuccessful? You deserved better (and fortunately, you found her despite your quest).

  16. Ha ha ha, he he he! I was taught the terrible double space back when my hair was brown and I was four feet tall. Those who insist that they were taught in this way should just get over it. Are you trying to say that you’re incapable of learning new things? Jeepers! One of my great joys in life (a dull life to be sure) is to use find/replace to not only strip out double spacing, but also double paragraph marks. Wow! I need to get a life.

  17. Thanks for posting about this. I have debates with my boss about it all the time. I was an always-two space dude until about 3 years ago, but we don’t always have proofreaders looking at a hard copy anymore (another reason for the two spaces: more room for notes/editing).

    Even manuscripts and Courier look strange to me with two spaces now. Even worse than that: inconsistencies with one and two spaces between sentences within the same document. Makes my skin crawl. Maybe I have issues.

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