One or Two Spaces After a Period?

By Maeve Maddox

Among the most acrimonious writing-related debates one finds on language blogs is one sparked by the innocuous question, “Do you put one or two spaces after a period?”

Wriing in Slate, Farhad Manjoo borders on the abusive:

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong. […] And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.

The two-spacers can be just as aggressive:

As a US Marine, I know that what’s right is right and you are wrong [about the spacing issue]. I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period. If you refuse to alter your bullheadedness, I will petition the commandant to allow me to take one Marine detail to…impose my rule. Thou shalt place two spaces after a period. Period. Semper Fidelis.–from the CMOS forum

The one-space monomyth suggests that in some utopian past before the invention of the typewriter, typographers knew better than to leave that “ugly” extra space between sentences.

According to the myth, because the keys on those clunky typewriters made all letters take up the same amount of space (the “i” key was as wide as the “m” key) the typist needed to leave two spaces between sentences so that readers could see where one sentence ended and the other began. The implication is that before the typewriter, typographers had put less space between sentences.

A glance through some of the books in my own library is enough to refute the notion that leaving a wide space between sentences came in with the typewriter.

In my Hogarth Moralized (1831), the spaces between sentences are at least em quads (spaces as wide as a capital M). In my Cassell’s Library of English Literature (1883), the spaces are wide enough to drive a truck through; ditto my collection of English textbooks from the 1930s and 1940s, although my Modern Library editions (very cheap at the time of purchase) already show the narrower spacing.

Leaving a wide space between sentences did not come in with the monospacing of the typewriter. And the use of two spaces after a period is not automatically “ugly and wrong.” It’s a matter of typographic convention.

Critics like Manjoo may feel that one space after a period is prettier than two spaces, but that’s merely his opinion. The one-space convention has triumphed, but not for reasons of aesthetics; it is a typographical evolution driven by changing technology.

Two articles that do a great job of documenting the evolution of the spacing convention are, How Many Spaces After a Period? Ending the Debate, by David Brickert and Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong, by a writer at Heraclitean River.

The Bricker article includes illustrations of printed texts dating from 1787 to 1966.

Like typography, style guides evolve. The Chicago Manual of Style, Fourth Edition (1914), recommended “an em quad (wide space) after periods…” However, my trusty, up-to-date online edition of the Chicago Manual of Style lays down a new rule:

6.7 Punctuation and space—one space or two?
In typeset matter, one space, not two, should be used between two sentences—whether the first ends in a period, a question mark, an exclamation point, or a closing quotation mark or parenthesis.

So, “Do you put one or two spaces after a period?” The answer, according to present-day conventions: one space.

If you’re writing for yourself, do what makes you happy. If you decide to submit what you’ve written to a publisher, you can always get rid of the extra spaces with the “search and replace” feature.

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31 Responses to “One or Two Spaces After a Period?”

  • Jaap

    I have no idea what people are talking about one or two periods never is an issue I never seem to have the problem since I think periods are overrated period and therefore so is the discussion about double spaces I mean seriously I feel people read much faster without all this overrated punctuation stuff slowing them down am I right

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