Double Spaced

Time for another less serious than fate-of-humanity stuff.  And what couldn’t be less serious than discussing the fate-of-humanity?  Not sure about that.  But what has set me off this time is an essay I came across in slate the other day. [1]  Now, that essay was a few years old, but the subject is relatively timeless.  Or should I say, spaceless?  How many spaces should we type after the end of a sentence?

Now, if you’re an old fart like me, you were taught to type on a manual typewriter that used courier font.  This is a font that has uniform spacing.  It doesn’t matter if you’re typing a period or the letter W, the space that they take up on the page is the same.  This is the way I was taught, and it’s exactly the method that I’ve been practicing for the last seventy years.

Now, suddenly, I come across a barrage of experts claiming that I’m doing it all wrong.  Not only that, but the official society of typesetting professionals agree that I’m doing it all wrong.  What am I to do?  This is quite the quandary, because I’m set in my ways.  The eyes are going, my joints are creaking, the ears don’t hear, and I’d much rather complain than have to learn a whole new method of typing.  Part of me wishes that there were some way to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the pain and anguish of changing my ways would be worth it.  Then I would know exactly what to do, because I would also know the benefits and drawbacks of my decision, no matter what I would decide.

And there’s the issue!  It’s all well and good for some highfalutin typesetting society to come out and say one space is sufficient, but why is that?  It’s not like the world is running out of extra spaces.  It’s not as if we can use those spaces somewhere else for the good of mankind.  I don’t waste a whole lot of time with those spaces, and it certainly doesn’t use up extra toner on my printer.  So what’s the problem?

The problem, according to the “Two too many spaces after sentences is bad” society, is that we don’t need them.  One is enough, and the idea of having two spaces only arose when we started using the manual mono-spaced font typewriters of the twentieth century.  They also claim, although I haven’t tested this for truthiness, that typesetters of old used slightly bigger spaces after sentences in the way back.  That’s because they could set spaces very easily, since the bit of metal that represented a space didn’t have to be cast with a letter.  It was just a space!

The problem I have with all this is that it’s arbitrary.  Not just seeming arbitrary, but all of it’s terribly arbitrary.  And to see how arbitrary this all is, let’s set the wayback machine to somewhere around five thousand years ago, just about the time writing was invented.  Yes, writing was invented.  It didn’t evolve, it didn’t get sent to us by aliens or get etched into stone by some great power.  We, people, your great great grand parents, invented writing.  They invented it because it helped them communicate with others over distance.  It even helped them communicate with themselves over time.  Those of you who are losing neurons daily will know what I mean.

When writing was first invented it started out as a bunch of lines.  And pictures.  Well, kind of pictures.  Then those picturey-kind-of-pictures turned into symbols.  Then they became the letters we know today.  Not all the letters, just the capital ones.  When the ancient greeks wrote books, it was in all capitals.  And they didn’t have spaces.  And they didn’t have punctuation either.  Those books were really hard to read.  So what did mankind do?

We, mankind, invented small letters.  Because sometimes we wanted to convey more emotion in our writing, we needed something like today’s “emoticons.”  These special original emoticons were called punctuation.  The period.  The question mark.  The exclamation mark.  These are all inventions.  There was one other thing that we invented that relates to my whole rant here, and that is the sentence.  I’m saying one thing.  I said it.  I’m done.  What I said all in one breath is one sentence.  But how do I tell you, the Gentle Reader, that this is one sentence?  Again, I had to invent ways to do this.  So I started the sentence with a capital letter.  I used all little letters after that.  Mostly.  Then I finished with a period.  Usually.  Now you know where a sentence starts and where it ends.

But what happens when we put a whole lot of sentences together?  Then we invented the paragraph, a collection of sentences that attempt to support a single unifying idea.  This particular paragraph is trying to promote the idea that when you have a whole lot of sentences stuck together, you can use as much help as possible telling them apart.  The capital letter at the beginning is helpful, but with today’s rules there are usually LOTS of other words that may be capitalized, for various reasons.  There’s a period at the end, but as we know, there are lots of other puctuation marks nowadays; such that the period could be easily mistaken for something else: a colon, a semi-colon, a comma, and maybe even an exclamation mark or question mark.

Which brings us to the real crux of the matter.  The double space at the end of the sentence help you, the reader, find the sentences when a bunch of them are stuck together.  And in my simple world, anything that helps us communicate more efficiently is a good thing.  Anything that makes our lives more confusing, like burying sentences in a paragraph, is a bad thing.

If the TTMSASIB society wants to argue that it’s time to fight for the one-space rule, I say bring on the evidence.  Do some science. Some BEHAVIORAL science.  Show me that people can comprehend a single space separated paragraph better than a double spaced paragraphed, and I’ll be a believer.  Show me that it works for all the major fonts.  And show me that it makes life better in some other way, just to be thorough.  If they can’t do that, then too bad. I’m sticking to my double life.

[1]   Space Invaders, or, Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.   It’s by Farhad Manjoo, and it was posted Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, at 6:00 AM.