One Space or Two

[Originally posted on [2012-09-28 Fri]

There seems to be an eternal debate among writers (and those who hate them) about the relative merits of inserting one space or two between sentences. (See, Mark Barrett's blog post for an interesting and unusually even-keeled example.) The question itself is misleading in every sense, but to the extent that it is a meaningful one, the answer will come by asking what, exactly, is at stake in the issue. There are several possibilities, including the sanity of publishing editors, the tired fingers of authors, the beauty of documents, or the ease with which we use those documents. The future of Western Civilization may not be at stake in the sense that if we today omit to insert an extra space after our full stops, we shall surely be shoveling babies into ovens tomorrow; but somebody thinks something is at stake—else why all the vitriol?

In the realm of computer programs, the desiderata for an editor of text are, as the programmers would put it, orthogonal to those for a typesetter of text. Attempts at integrating the two functions into a single, graphical program have produced mongrels like Microsoft Word, and OpenOffice Writer, which perform neither function well. For example, one may examine texts rendered by such programs side-by-side, justified and not, and conclude, as Barrett does, that justification produces undesirable spacing byproducts, particularly when sentence ends are double-spaced; but the comparison tells us only that the typesetting engines used are unable to intelligently hyphenate. Hyphenation is not merely a minor side issue, but is critical to any proper attempt at justified typesetting, and for precisely this reason. One may indeed suggest the use of such word-processing programs for the quick and easy production of party flyers, but for serious writing, there is no substitute for a real, professional-grade text editor; and as for typesetting the resulting text, that is not the job of the writer, qua writer, but of a typesetter. The two functions may reside in one and the same person, just as they may reside in one and the same computer program (usually with the same quality of result) but they remain nevertheless distinct functions of the process of bringing text to readers.

Furthermore, space is not a discrete, but a continuous quantity, as the mathematicians would put it. A paper-and-ink document does not contain one, or two, spaces after a sentence, but rather it contains some single quantity of space, large or small, however produced. The notion of reducing this measure to the simple level of one discrete lump or two stems, as has been pointed out many times, from the Age of Mechanization; but if the secretarial poolies of old found themselves resorting to the expedient of adding an extra space after a sentence, it is premature to leave the issue at that, with a dismissive wave of the hand. An extra keystroke after every sentence is, if nothing else, inefficient; and if there is anything which a professional typist abhors, it is waste. We must ask therefore why the habit was formed and reinforced despite the added effort; and the answer is of course that in its crude way, the insertion of an extra space character simulated the extra space which the typists were used to seeing in actual typeset material.

About such material one gathers several things: first, that in the modern world, the habit of adding a little extra space after a sentence-end has waned. Perhaps, as the Marxists will no-doubt conclude, it is because it costs less to mass-produce material which packs more into a smaller space—whitespace costs money; perhaps it is because an algorithm which can intelligently account for all the interbalanced and sometimes conflicting factors involved in real typesetting is devilishly difficult to write, and therefore expensive to produce and complex and difficult to learn to use—and if there is one thing few but engineers seem to want, it is to learn to use TeX; or perhaps, as the deteriorationists will inevitably conclude, it is simply because modern man lacks the sophistication of taste of which his noble ancestor was possessed. Second, in older typeset material, it seems that the habit of adding extra space tends to be something of an English (and therefore American) trait. The Latinate (and therefore Continental) habit is to space between sentences as between words. The American typists imitated the typesetters of their country by adding an extra space; the French did not; and now we have the phrase “French spacing” to denote the omission of that second space. The argument that double-spacing is only an accident of the history of the mechanical typewriter itself brushes aside the long history of typesetting with extra space between sentences which the English-speaking typists sought to imitate.

It is important to realize, however, that the addition of that extra spacing character is, just as I've said, an imitation. It is a visual imitation of what is itself, at least in part, a mark with semantic meaning. If we choose to mark the end of a sentence with the same sort of space that we use to mark the space between words (a space which itself is conventional, as a glance at old Latin texts will show) that later space is nevertheless semantically distinct from the former, because the structure which it distinguishes is distinct. There is no merit in the argument that a space is a space is a space. Because a sentence is not a word, a sentence space is not a word space; even when the current fashion of typesetting makes them visually indistinguishable, they remain semantically distinct. Just as an indentation in printed material (or some less felicitous means in HTML-typeset material) is used to differentiate one paragraph from the next, we use certain marks to set off one sentence from the next. They include capitalizing the first letter of the new sentence, using a mark of punctuation like the period, and, in some circumstances, we add a little extra space between the sentences.

This much, in itself, seems an argument in favor of the double-spacing habit. (As an aside, my own text editor of choice, GNU Emacs, makes use of this fact by defining a large number of functions whose purpose is to operate on individual sentences as a whole. The ability, with a single keystroke, to move the cursor one sentence at a time, to mark off individual sentences, no matter how long, or how many lines they may occupy, is a useful and valuable one; and it is only possible when those sentences are distinguished distinctively; therefore Emacs treats two spaces following a sentence-ending punctuation mark as the delimiter of a sentence. Such functions could not work without such a unique combination to distinguish a sentence.) But of course, it is not really clarity in the semantic sense which the proponents of double-spacing seek, but rather clarity in the visual sense—the sense of ease and comfort of reading. Indeed, one requires no spaces whatever between sentences to make them semantically clear—that function is amply fulfilled by the mark of punctuation and the following capital, mediated by a little intelligent sensitivity to context on the part of the reader. (One cites Wikipedia advisedly, but according to that source, studies regarding the effect of end-of-sentence spacing on text comprehension have been inconclusive.)

Some typesetters might claim that extra spacing makes unsightly gaps in a text, and, if a page is looked at as a dead blob of color on paper, rather than as a sequence of living ideas expressed in text, then they are quite right; but it remains debatable whether such gaps or rivers through the text distract, as some might claim. One might argue, after all, that yes, there is no evidence that extra space between sentences makes text easier to read; but to argue that there is, in principle, no value in using some whitespace to make reading easier and more pleasant commits one to the same position with regard to paragraph breaks—a frightful thought. You may like some extra space between sentences in typeset material, as I do, because those gaps make landmarks which render it easier to sense where one is in a block of otherwise unyielding text. Quite arguably, the visual homogeneity which is held up as an ideal by some typesetters is actually a hindrance to pleasant reading. There is no really good facility in HTML and CSS which allows double-spaced sentence ends; and there is no point in tilting at the windmill of the medium in which one works. Editors, intelligent, enlightened, or otherwise, may demand work done in one way or the other—another fight not worth the ink. A text editing program may seem to urge one way or the other; thus. Furthermore, if text is fed into a typesetting engine, it will collapse multiple spaces into one—one which may or may not, depending on the intelligence of the program, and the taste of its operator, be larger than an inter-word space; therefore, other things being equal, for text intended to be typeset in any sense at all, it matters not one bit how many spaces one uses between sentences. As for informal communications, such as emails, the answer is that it does not matter precisely because the medium is informal; and as for the use of monospaced typefaces, it is true that the double space can appear excessive in that case, but the very use of a monospace typeface indicates that we are not discussing serious typeset material — one uses such fonts now only for writing computer code and for certain fanciful sorts of decoration—not for running text.

So, should you use two spaces or one? If you are not actually typesetting text, it does not matter, but it doesn't hurt, unless you have reason to suspect that it will prejudice your editor against you. Might it bother your editor? Evidently, it is possible. It seems that people with an irrational prejudice against double-spacing are more common and more vitriolic than those with a prejudice for. If you are typesetting your text, even for the Web, then once again, it doesn't matter, as the typesetting engine will collapse the extra space into one. If someone complains that the typeset results contain those extra spaces, then they are almost certainly trying to use a child's toy—a word processing program—to do an adult's job. And if your text editor functions more usefully if you do double-space, then it won't hurt to do so. I myself find that even in a monospace typeface on my text editor's screen, my own writing is easier for me to read with double spaces, so I use them even for my own manuscripts. And for an email? Again, it does not matter. So, if you already have the habit, there is little reason to reform; and if you don't, there is no more reason to change.

The real question, then, has nothing to do with the typing habits of all those poor, harassed writers, whose job is naught but to produce meaningful text, but with the work of typesetters, whose job is to render that text—not beautiful, but ergonomic. It is reduced to the question of whether serious, typeset running text (not merely authors' manuscripts) should be set with—no, not “two spaces,” but with a little more space kerned in between sentences. One may point to history and find that it's been done both ways for a long time. One may point to science and find little to prove one way or the other.

But does this mean that the issue is entirely subjective? Perhaps not. The desire to eradicate the visual distinction between words and phrases on the one hand, and sentences, on the other, implies a desire, or a least a willingness (even if born only of insensitivity) to eradicate the semantic distinction. If the implication of the “a space is a space” argument is that words and clauses and phrases are no different from sentences; then what may be at stake, albeit in a very small way, is the appreciation our culture has for the importance—the vital importance—of the concept of the sentence itself, as properly not more and no less than the complete expression of a complete thought. I admit that the connection is slight and tenuous; nevertheless one might indeed see the tendency to lose the graphical distinction between a sentence-end and a phrase-end as symptomatic of a general insensitivity to the distinction between the two kinds of structure, as another effect of the same cause which is behind the general atomization which seems to have taken hold of modern writing. The atomization of sentences implies the atomization of thought. What once might have been written as a single flowing sentence consisting of clear premises followed by a conclusion is now replaced with the machine-gun stutter of seemingly unrelated assertions. No, we will not all die tomorrow if we allow ourselves to habitually begin our sentences with the word but; but that we live in a culture which has lost the sense of why such a thing might be infelicitous in many contexts is indication that the sense of a sentence has been largely lost. Perhaps then that, if not proves, at any rate may explain some prejudice against the single-spacing habit, even where we might all admit that it is, after all, not really an important issue in itself.


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