Jeremy Stein - Journal

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Sentence Separator Spaces

This essay is 30 years too late. The world has moved from double space sentence separators to single space. I was taught to separate sentences with two spaces when I learned to type, but I guess that advice already lagged behind the majority of style guides.

That’s fine. I don’t mind adapting and learning a new habit. The problem is that whenever I read about the issue, I feel like everyone is gaslighting me. The two major arguments are that (1) it’s no longer necessary now that we have proportional fonts and (2) it’s no longer necessary now that we have computers.

Those arguments do not make sense.

1. “It’s no longer necessary now that we have proportional fonts.”

OK, let’s take a look. Remember, the gaslighters are telling me that 2-space looks good in monospace and 1-space looks good in proportional fonts.

Here are 1- and 2-space sentence separators with a monospace font:

Personally, I think the monospace sentences look better with one space separator. The period already has a lot of whitespace around it, so one is sufficient. But I can see how two spaces adds clarity, so kudos to typesetters who made two-space the standard.

Now, let’s take a look at the proportional font:

A space character in a proportional font is thin. The line with two spaces is clearly easier to read. It’s certainly not as dramatic as two spaces in monospace. Why is everyone lying about this as though we suddenly added a huge gap between sentences that didn’t exist in monospace?

Stop saying that proportional width sentences need only one space because the typesetting is better. That makes no sense.

2. It’s no longer necessary now that we have computers.

This argument is not really clear, but I usually see some reference to the idea that computers are better at formatting than typewriters.

Yes! Computers are better at formatting… and that’s precisely the reason to use two spaces. Two spaces can indicate a sentence separator rather than a word separator; the computer is free to format it however is most appropriate. Perhaps the space should be slightly wider (but not twice as wide). Or perhaps the preceding punctuation could be made bolder, or lower, or the next letter could be emphasized. Providing a clue to the computer that the sentence is over would allow the computer to provide that same clue to the reader without necessarily just displaying two spaces.

A single space can leave the reader unclear as to whether the sentence ended. Here’s a somewhat contrived example of the ambiguity left by making word separators and sentence separators the same:

I visited parts of U.K. I wanted to be in.

It’s awkward, but it could be either one sentence or two. You can’t tell because we use one space for both word and sentence separation. When we use two spaces, it clearly indicates a sentence separator rather than a word separator. The computer is free to format it however is most appropriate.

Maybe the computer argument is more ignorance and less gaslighting. Your computer already formats two spaces as a single space. Web browsers collapse all sequences of whitespace characters into single spaces. This sentence is actually followed by 700 spaces. But it shows up in your browser as just one.

Stop saying that a single space after a period is better for the computer.

There are benefits to two spaces after a period. And it’s a reasonable aesthetic opinion to prefer two spaces even with proportional fonts. The one-true-way folks need to back off. It’s not a slam dunk decision. I will bow to consensus, but I shouldn’t be told I’m crazy for siding with the minority.

July 5, 2020 2 Comments.

2 Comments

  1. Joan Hershberger replied:

    Hmmm… When I went to work for the newspaper (before computerization of the pages) I was told only one space is the standard for newspapers. It took a bit to reprogram my typing, but now i can’t go back.

    July 14th, 2020 at 8:24 pm. Permalink.

  2. Carol Stence replied:

    I absolutely agree, Jeremy, and I’m so glad you came forward to provide leadership for this very vexing problem. Push back is long over-due!

    July 16th, 2020 at 8:12 am. Permalink.

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