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The nuns enforced it with a ruler: two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. I, along with many others do this instinctively. Why is this considered incorrect/improper in printed materials and on the web?

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See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_spacing –  koiyu May 21 '11 at 13:44
    
Related on English.SE: english.stackexchange.com/questions/2544/… –  JYelton Sep 9 '11 at 19:19
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3 Answers 3

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence started when the typewriter replaced hand set printing presses. When type was set by hand the spacing was carefully crafted to make sentences and paragraphs easier to read. Typewriters use a monospace font that make it hard to distinguish the end of a sentence without adding the extra space.

Modern fonts are kerned so they don't need the extra space at the end of a sentence. In HTML adding the extra space requires using encoded HTML entities. You can hit the spacebar as many times as you want but you only get one space.

If you're using a monospaced font add the extra space otherwise it's just not necessary.


Monospaced examples:

Double-spaced

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.  Proin sagittis urna
ut tellus fringilla malesuada.  Fusce rhoncus varius nisi ut interdum.  Vivamus
rutrum tempor risus aliquet rutrum.  Nunc ornare luctus cursus.  Sed lacinia
ultricies mi, eget vestibulum mauris tempus et.  Suspendisse pretium pharetra
ornare.  In porta rutrum orci at malesuada.  Maecenas nisl arcu, commodo nec
aliquet id, pulvinar non dui.  Sed ac ultricies odio.  Etiam tellus nunc,
lobortis id luctus vel, pulvinar non risus.  In sollicitudin eros nec sem
suscipit feugiat accumsan pellentesque nisl.

Single-spaced

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin sagittis urna
ut tellus fringilla malesuada. Fusce rhoncus varius nisi ut interdum. Vivamus
rutrum tempor risus aliquet rutrum. Nunc ornare luctus cursus. Sed lacinia
ultricies mi, eget vestibulum mauris tempus et. Suspendisse pretium pharetra
ornare. In porta rutrum orci at malesuada. Maecenas nisl arcu, commodo nec
aliquet id, pulvinar non dui. Sed ac ultricies odio. Etiam tellus nunc, lobortis
id luctus vel, pulvinar non risus. In sollicitudin eros nec sem suscipit feugiat
accumsan pellentesque nisl.
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One might add that this "rule" is confined to the US. It was never standard anywhere else, as far as I can discover. Two spaces after punctuation has never been standard in typeset text in any era, and in proportional spaced typefaces, a double space peppers paragraphs with big blobs of blank. ;-) –  Alan Gilbertson May 21 '11 at 5:48
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Also common in the UK. –  e100 May 21 '11 at 8:30
    
@e100: Really? I don't recall ever having come across that. It certainly wasn't ever mentioned in the Pitman's typing manual I studied (back in the 1960s when I was at university in Glasgow). I've been in the US for 25+ years, so perhaps I've forgotten. –  Alan Gilbertson May 21 '11 at 23:57
    
I believe it was common in the UK and Ireland at some stage because I came across it with older pre-computer trained colleagues when I worked in Admin. –  temptar May 23 '11 at 14:44
    
We were taught to place two spaces after a full stop in Australia, when learning on typewriters, and IIRC this is something we got from the U.K. As far as I knew this is not a particularly American phenomenon. I was of the understanding at the time that the opposite was true - that the U.S. were the first, and loudest, opponents of the two-spaces practice. –  thomasrutter Aug 29 '13 at 8:07
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From a newsletter I sent out to author clients a few years ago (edited to remove monospace information already covered in Chris's answer):

When people made the switch from typewriters to word processors and proportionally spaced type, the term "typing" stayed with us. It makes sense: "I'm word processing a letter" is a clumsy mouthful, so the simpler, more traditional term stuck. The problem is, when you use almost any font on a computer you aren't really typing, you are really typesetting, a very different thing.

The art of typesetting proportional fonts is handled automatically by the computer (often poorly, but that's a story for another time) as you type. The point is, what you are doing is typesetting, not typing, and nobody bothered to let you know.

That's a shame, because the result is that many things typesetters (a highly paid, highly skilled profession) take for granted have never been communicated to the present generations of computer users. Worse, the typing practices that are still taught in schools are just plain wrong, unless you are actually using a typewriter (or a font that mimics one, such as Courier).

Spaces Don't Come In Twos

Many, many computer users automatically put two spaces after every period, colon, or closing quotation mark, not realizing that the space designed into punctuation already takes into account the extra gap needed after the end of a sentence, so one space, not two, is correct. This has been standard typesetting practice for several hundred years. The Chicago Manual of Style says: "In typeset matter, one space, not two (in other words, a regular word space), follows any mark of punctuation that ends a sentence…" without mentioning the reason. Typeset matter, as a glance at any magazine or book will tell you, is always proportional-spaced. Like I said: you're typesetting, but nobody bothered to tell you.

In typewritten text, two spaces help to make the text more readable by providing a visual clue to the beginning of a new sentence. In typeset text, two spaces not only don't improve readability, they also create random blobs of white space that make the text look subtly but definitely wrong, (especially when you know the difference). Here is some text set with two spaces between sentences, then with one. The typeface is Tunga Regular.

Text samples

[Added later] All that said, it dawned on me after I wrote the above that there is a much more fundamental reason why one doesn't use two spaces after punctuation, and is the reason for the single-space rule. Since before there was such a thing as movable type, scribes and typographers have strived to achieve even typographic color on the page. If you're not into type, you probably don't think of plain black type as having "color," but the term refers to the relative grayness or blackness of a page or a paragraph. Even color (pick up any good book, open to a text-intensive page, and defocus your eyes a bit) is one sign of good typography. Uneven color is distracting and detracts from the readability of text, and makes the page less inviting to read (another goal of typography).

The "one space" rule is there because it maintains that evenness of color.

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Looking at historical documents, it would appear that the problem with using two spaces after a full stop isn't that it creates too much emptiness, but rather that it creates too little to work as a proper "wide space". I'd consider the effect somewhat analogous to adding an extra point or two of leading between paragraphs, rather than adding none or adding at least half a line worth. A proper full-stop wide space or paragraph leading should create a "hole" or "gap", rather than a color variation. I consider it unfortunate that software never opted to have a double-space... –  supercat Jun 16 at 20:22
    
...render as a "wide space" whose width relative to a normal space would be configurable, since such rendering would allow the same entered text to be rendered using both pre-Linotype and post-Linotype conventions. –  supercat Jun 16 at 20:23
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The real reason to use one space, as Alan has said in an added note, is that it generally improves readability: two spaces after sentences lead to uneven blackness of the paragraph and may even lead to the existence of rivers. If nothing else, this is unsightly. And finally, we use one space because it’s convention and style manuals tell us to. Unanimously (scroll down a bit).


But let’s please bury the legend that “two spaces after the sentence were introduced by the transition to typewriters”. It’s demonstrably wrong.

Now, you may have read that article and are understandably upset about it. Any article which calls typographers liars in its title probably deserves all the ire it gets. And it claims that “two spaces isn’t wrong” and (although the article goes on to qualify and justify this), that’s wrong.

But the article correctly shows that the practice of two spaces after sentences long predates typewriters. It also shows that style manuals such as the Chicago Manual of Styles (of all things!) used to recommend the two spaces at a time.

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The convention of referring to the area between one sentence and the next as "two spaces" is almost certainly tied to the invention of the typewriter. The convention of having a larger area between sentences than between words, however, substantially precedes the typewriter. It would be interesting if the "one-space-only" advocates could find any examples of pre-Linotype professionally-set documents which didn't use an extra-wide space between sentences. Personally, I'm saddened that computers didn't adopt the convention that two or more consecutive spaces... –  supercat Jun 16 at 18:51
    
...within paragraph-formatted text should be regarded as a "sentence space", which could be set to be anywhere from 1.0 to 5.0 (or more) times the width of a normal space. That would allow text which was entered in normal typewriter fashion to be rendered in either "modern" or "old-style" typography. –  supercat Jun 16 at 18:53
    
@supercat Well professional typesetting systems (TeX …) do that anyway (and they can do it automatically, no need for the existence of “two or more consecutive spaces”). However, a 5-fold (or indeed everything above a 1.x-fold) increase seems excessive – once again with reference to even blackness. –  Konrad Rudolph Jun 17 at 9:26
    
How does one reliably distinguish sentence-ending periods from non-sentence-ending abbreviations if they're typed identically? Importing text which was entered with the two-space-after-sentence (but not after abbreviation) convention, would seem more reliable than trying to draw inferences based upon the text. I did at least find a way of doing things in CSS, at least with non-justified text: use "white-space: pre-wrap", and adjust the width of spaces such that using multiple spaces can create proper-width gaps (e.g. make spaces half-width, and then use 2 space characters for word space... –  supercat Jun 17 at 13:26
    
...and five for sentence space, if a 2.5:1 ratio is appropriate for the font one is using) [not typing in characters like that, but processing the file to replace spaces with double spaces, and resulting groups of four with groups of five). –  supercat Jun 17 at 13:29
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