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When Two is Not, Apparently, Better than One

Jan 31, 2014   [permalink]

Well, I confess I was learned my typing back in the era when impressionable youngin's were told that one absolutely must type two spaces after a period. That was How It Was Done. I incorporated that into my being, being as how it was Truth from on High. (As in, Mrs. Martin.) I even thought just a little bit scoldingly of those who only typed one space after a period. Tsk. They didn't learn the True Way. This minor aspersion included annoyance that HTML code condensed multiple spaces down to a single, regardless the intention one might have had. (Of course, one could force in that extra space with a special code, as various software is known to do automatically for you.) And I was happy with auto-typing systems like the Blackberry, where it automatically placed not just the two spaces but a period too when you hit two spaces. How correct of it.

So color me croggled when I randomly happened upon Space Invaders in somebody's Facebook feed.

Jaw. Drop.

That era of my youth when youngin's were learned to type two spaces? An apparently brief era and not to mention wrong era.

One space is correct. Two is wrong.

It's a common (mis)conception, it seems, that two is the right number. The fellow in that article takes a good historical look at the situation, not to mention the critical aspect, which is what happens when the type is actually set.

"Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork," as he says. Since the early 20th century.

The manual typewriter is seemingly to blame for the two space invasion. (Typewriters, and I'd note, early computer terminals, using a monospaced font, unlike all real typesetting, which uses proportional spaced fonts, like you're almost certainly reading now.) It's harder to spot sentence transitions in a monospaced, so people adopted two spaces to make it easier to see. But that was meant to be only for stuff you would read in monospaced type... not for use in the far more professional looking proportional type. Which has now long since displaced mono. That makes sense. Especially now that we have software (such as browsers) that can adjust the spacing between sentences to maximize readability.

(Except, perhaps, in a very small number of cases, such as the word "etc." at the end of a sentence where the next sentence starts with a word that would always be capitalized anyway, such as "I", as in "ReAnimus Press publishes books by Bova, Silverberg, Spinrad, etc. I quite enjoy being able to do that." One has to think a bit about whether "etc." ends the sentence (which it does) or if it's all one sentence. That takes a human to parse the meaning of the words (AI hasn't cracked natural language processing it: Think about, "Fruit flies like a banana; time flies like an arrow") so software can't accurately guess whether to place extra space in such a case. That's about my only quibble with the value of two spaces.)

So, I'm retraining myself. If you see me typing with two spaces in some context, ah, well, drats, unshakable truths are hard habits to break. :)

Update, Jan. 2014:

It took only a small number of months to break the habit. I'm now two-space free. However, I still find it frustrating every time I happen to end a sentence with an abbreviation—the aforementioned "etc. followed by I" situation. It doesn't seem right that we should have ambiguous sentence breaks just because of a typesetting rule.

In some cases the two sentences might even make grammatical sense when run together, so it is important to signal to readers that they're two distinct sentences. For example: "In certain cases I find one space after a period so frustrating, irritating, etc. I like chocolate." That could be parsed as a conditional, that the frustration causes me to like chocolate. Or it could, as I intended, be parsed as two separate sentences, thus that I like chocolate regardless of spaces. :)

It isn't right that typesetters have created this ambiguity of meaning without also providing a simple typesetting way to make it clear. (Isn't the point of typesetting to make meaning clear first, and attractive second?)

I find myself sometimes rewriting the sentences to avoid the problem—but that's not right. I shouldn't have to rewrite my prose just to work around some stupid typesetting rule. (Say, you know what typesetting rule would make that clear? Two spaces after the period!)

So, at least in these cases, we should have some disambiguator, such as two periods—"ReAnimus Press publishes books by Bova, Silverberg, Spinrad, etc.. I quite enjoy being able to do that." That looks a bit odd, but I suppose we could get used to it.

Or, dare I say it, the right to use multiple spaces, without HTML and other display systems collapsing them to one. Thus: "ReAnimus Press publishes books by Bova, Silverberg, Spinrad, etc.  I quite enjoy being able to do that."

Now, I forced that by typing in two HTML "non-breaking spaces", "  ". That's a lot of nuisance. Writers shouldn't have to go to that extreme. So, ideally, it would mean HTML display rules/etc. would be coded to know that if the user typed in a period, multiple spaces, and a sentence starting character (capital letter, quote, parenthesis, etc.), then to leave that extra space between them.

The problem then is that HTML engines are trying to correct for everyone "wrongly" using two spaces, even when it shouldn't. So, I propose typesetting and HTML specs permit three spaces after a period to indicate, "Really leave more space here to disambiguate that this is the end of a sentence." In some cases, only the author knows the intent, one sentence or two. We need a way for the author to convey that.

I could get used to typing three spaces in those very rare cases where I end one sentence with an abbreviation and being the next with an always-capitalized word. I could get used to using two periods when one is ambiguous. Maybe I should just start using two periods. Hah!

Meanwhile, I'll grumble every time I end a sentence with an abbreviation.

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