One Space or Two?
By Michael Becker
Quick, how many spaces do you insert after a period when you type?
If you’re like me, you probably learned that you should insert two spaces after every period or colon in your writing. I remember reading this in my typing textbook in middle school and learning it from my mother when she taught me how to type on our old Selectric typewriter. But However useful this was when putting actual ink directly on actual paper, it just doesn’t fly in the word processor world.
Why abandon this time honored practice? Digital typography, that’s why. Have you ever looked at the letters that a typewriter produces? Take a look next time and you’ll see that they are all the exact same width, from the lower-case M to the upper-case I. That’s because all the hammers holding the letters on the typewriter are the same size. Naturally, the artists who designed the typefaces for typewriters made all the letters fit the space they had available.
Some of these “monospaced” fonts remain with us to this day. Write a few sentences (like this one) in the typeface Courier New and you’ll see what I mean.
Now, most people write in what are called “variable width” fonts, like Times New Roman or Arial, in which the letters are all different widths. When you type these into a word processor, the computer automatically arranges them to look as good as possible on the screen and, later, on the printed page.
What has this got to do with the spacing between sentences? Well, when typing on a typewriter, people found they had to insert an extra space between sentences so that readers could tell where the breaks between all those similar-width letters were. (The practice was carried on with colons, for some reason I have yet to understand.) It enhanced readability.
But with the computer arranging our characters for us on screen, and since our fonts are typically variable-width, we don’t need the extra space. Hence, use only one space between sentences when typing in a word processing program.
Oh, and here’s the kicker. Even if you’re writing in a monospaced font, like this one, on a computer, you still leave one space between sentences. Because, while the letters may all be the same width, the computer will still optimize the spaces between words to improve readability.
About the author: Lauren Cerretti is the Graduate Writing Tutor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.