Ryan Maelhorn's picture

(The following text is from

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. * You'd expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you'd be wrong; every third e-mail I get from readers includes the two-space error. (In editing letters for "Dear Farhad," my occasional tech-advice column, I've removed enough extra spaces to fill my forthcoming volume of melancholy epic poetry, The Emptiness Within.) The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I've received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces. Some of my best friends are irredeemable two spacers, too, and even my wife has been known to use an unnecessary extra space every now and then (though she points out that she does so only when writing to other two-spacers, just to make them happy).

What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers. It's their certainty that they're right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the "correct" number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space—but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space "rule." Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper. When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. "Who says two spaces is wrong?" they wanted to know.

Typographers, that's who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing. Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces. Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type. But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.

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 and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

Type professionals can get amusingly—if justifiably—overworked about spaces. "Forget about tolerating differences of opinion: typographically speaking, typing two spaces before the start of a new sentence is absolutely, unequivocally wrong," Ilene Strizver, who runs a typographic consulting firm The Type Studio, once wrote. "When I see two spaces I shake my head and I go, Aye yay yay," she told me. "I talk about 'type crimes' often, and in terms of what you can do wrong, this one deserves life imprisonment. It's a pure sign of amateur typography." "A space signals a pause," says David Jury, the author of About Face: Reviving The Rules of Typography. "If you get a really big pause—a big hole—in the middle of a line, the reader pauses. And you don't want people to pause all the time. You want the text to flow."

This readability argument is debatable. Typographers can point to no studies or any other evidence proving that single spaces improve readability. When you press them on it, they tend to cite their aesthetic sensibilities. As Jury says, "It's so bloody ugly."

But I actually think aesthetics are the best argument in favor of one space over two. One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing (it also requires less work, which isn't nothing). A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.

Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing. It's arbitrary that we write shop instead of shoppe, or phone instead of fone, or that we use ! to emphasize a sentence rather than %. We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience. Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that's how we should do it.

Besides, the argument in favor of two spaces isn't any less arbitrary. Samantha Jacobs, a reading and journalism teacher at Norwood High School in Norwood, Col., told me that she requires her students to use two spaces after a period instead of one, even though she acknowledges that style manuals no longer favor that approach. Why? Because that's what she's used to. "Primarily, I base the spacing on the way I learned," she wrote me in an e-mail glutted with extra spaces.

Several other teachers gave me the same explanation for pushing two spaces on their students. But if you think about, that's a pretty backward approach: The only reason today's teachers learned to use two spaces is because their teachers were in the grip of old-school technology. We would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that's what was popular back when they were in school. The same should go for typing. So, kids, if your teachers force you to use two spaces, send them a link to this article. Use this as your subject line: "If you type two spaces after a period, you're doing it wrong."

Nick Shinn's picture

We’ve had this discussion here before. There were/are legitimate typographical reasons for the two-space convention.

sko's picture

I have a copy of King Albert's Book, and it seems to have extra space (larger than a word space, which is used after the commas) after the full-stops. Would this be influenced by typewriters at the time (considering it was printed, I think, in 1914)?

quadibloc's picture

Two spaces for a monospaced typewriter, one space for typeset proportionally-spaced text. Surely that's been settled long ago.

David Vereschagin's picture

People are still ranting over this?


Michel Boyer's picture

TeX and LaTeX (still) have a larger default inter-sentence than inter-word spacing; you need to use the command \frenchspacing to disable that behavior. I doubt many users know about that or even noticed the difference. Moreover, the standard LaTeX packages amsart (Americal Mathematical Society) or revtex4-1 (American Physical Society) do not call \frenchspacing (the Springer llncs package however does). Here is a grab of the output with plain TeX (Computer Modern font)

on the source

  a b. c d\par 
  a b. c d

Correction: read "document class(es)" where I wrote "package(s)".

zeno333's picture

I took a class in 1979 that including instruction in writing business letters, and we were told to do the 2 space thing....of course word processing was in its infancy back then.....I have always just used one space.....

zeno333's picture

Paragraph formatting has evolved some also....

In the 60s and 70s I was always told you must indent a paragraph 's beginning and do not double space between paragraphs.....Today many are told you do not indent, but put a double line space to mark paragraphs without indenting.....

Nick Shinn's picture

Devolution, some would say.

zeno333's picture

I would imagine there is some debate out there about paragraph indenting....Many word processors today still default to having paragraphs indented....

oldnick's picture

What he said: ’Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”

What is true: “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong—for anyone, like me (who, after all, is the most important AND authoritaive moron in the world AND on the internet)—who does not have clue one why there is a reason for something that I don't know, is not easily Googlable, or is under retirement age. So there.”

Nick, old buddy: you got this one right. And, if we’re “lucky,” we ought to be able to bring about mass extinction ALL on our own—because two spaces after a period is stupid—when it took a totally accidental giant asteroid to wipe out the dinosaurs. That's call Progress—or hubris—or stupidity…

Which, unfortunately, leads me to believe that even dinosaurs—like me and a lot of clueless older folks—could find wisdom in allowing a little extra space to clearly disambiguate. Which, sadly, makes perfect sense in the insane asylum we all live in, the Paradise formerly know as Planet Earth.

Okay: anyone else want their buzz killed? AOL did it for me yesterday, when they “improved” my mailbox and—completely inadvertently (I must presume, to adumbrate my paranoia)—made it a WHOLE LOT harder to use. More Progress…

BTW—I am SO using two spaces after a period from now on. Twenty-three skidoo you, Buster!

oldnick's picture

RATS! The HTML generator keeps taking them OUT again! This CANNOT be right!

Hell, neither am I…what right do I have to complain? OTOH, when has that EVER stopped a red-blooded American from doing it, anyway?

And, BTW: please apologize for the split infinitive in the missive above. On the off chance that anyone else noticed or gave a rat’s patoot…

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

I thought the basic idea was to have 2 spaces after a period so that people would know for sure it was a period and not a comma? Of course having a capital letter after the space helps as well.

Surely the real reason this is happening is that it's very hard to create more then one space in a row on the web. You can put a hundred spaces after every sentence but most all browsers will take back out all but one. You won't be able to spot any double spaces on this web page, for instance, although I gather there is some kind of ascii code you can use for a double space. Not sure if it's an 'ascii code' but something like that.

This is the reasoning behind the non indented double spaced paragraph format as well.

So, instead of making the technology come around to adapt to us, we are adapting to it.

For myself I would say I only prefer the non indented style because the tab button seems to be set up for absurd indentation in most word processors. Something like ten character widths or something, much too wide. Of course you can change that, or just type in 4 spaces for your indent, but what a pain.

Michel Boyer's picture

In a web page, you can always add some space   between   words   using  .

It is also true with TeX that one or more spaces between words makes no difference and I thus find a bit surprising that there are still rules on the number of spaces that you are expected to put after periods in your input files.

On the other hand, for text justification, it makes sense to me to give more "stretch" to inter-sentence spacing than to inter-word spacing.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

That's true but how many people know that, and would actually use it? Would it be so hard to simply allow multiple spacing in html?

sko's picture

HTML still allows for an en-space or em-space to be used, though it has to be put in with a code so isn't easily accessed. ¶ There are also other ways to paragraph, which again aren't a straightforward thing you can do when typing normally. Full line space is probably just the path of least resistance.

oldnick's picture


You must be a child of the internet. There is something about “OBVIOUS DISAMBIGUATION” you do not—or, worse, cannot—grasp.

In case—which I hope to God is NOT the case—you do not understand the term “obvious disambiguation”—it means—PERFECTLY CLEAR.

Which, if you are a TRUE child of the internet, may also be unclear. If so, you have my profoundest sympathies, and the next generation is EVEN MORE totally screwed than I thought humanly possible. But, after all, humans are so ingenious that future generations may not have a Planet Earth to live on. If we all pay for the search for the rich guys to vamoose to, once the current house of cards goes ALL FALL DOWN.

Or Tuesday, which ever comes sooner. Sooner would be good for Wimpy, but a little less convenient for the rest of us who don’t buy hamburgers on “good faith” credit. We use plastic. That's where the real—or unreal, if you ask Ron Paul—money is. Or isn’t. Do you know? My bank doesn’t. Except when I owe them. Then, they know exactly where my money is. In their bank. Where I can't get at it. Which is just the way they like it. Any time. Twenty-four hours a day. For a fee, of course.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Still mad no free beer, OldNick?

HVB's picture

Typing classes (on TYPEWRITERS) used to teach typing two spaces. Some of us who took those classes many decades ago find it very difficult to change our fingers' mechanical memory. I've managed to overcome it, but my wife hasn't. It's almost as difficult as changing from a qwerty keyboard to anything else. We had to transition from typing a small letter 'ELL' for a numeral ONE, and not to type an apostrophe followed by a backspace and a period to create an exclamation point. Then there was where things were on the keyboard - shift/numbers were 2-double quote, 6-Underscore, 7-Ampersand, 8-single quote. There was a comma key and a period key, both of which worked either shifted or un-shifted. and an @-¢ key. Most of us old dogs managed to learn new tricks pretty quickly, but ...

Not to mention double spacing after a paragraph (as I've just done) instead of setting inter-paragraph spacing - which can't be done here.

oldnick's picture

Well, Ryan—

That is ONE way to look at it. Since you posted your presumed “own observation,” I feel I can be reasonably confident enough to go out on a limb and presume that you, yourself, actually posted it intentionally and on this forum; and, in consideration whereof, I might, quite reasonably, also presume that the words which actually appear on the LED screen in front of my very eyes actually are a credible representation of the precise, irrefutable, conscious, deliberate and indubitable thought which you, yourself, wished to be so expressed and conveyed—the curse of the mediacy of language be damned.

May I be so bold as to—once more—presume that my precise intentions, mood, timbre and nuance have been conveyed in the same manner? Because, silly person that I am, I wish to eschew obfuscation—as well as both superfluously sesquipedalian and inanely arcane lexicological legerdemain—in order to render clarity with the utmost precision?

oldnick's picture

P.S. The translation will cost you a second beer—which I would appreciate because it was generously offered, but not three, because I tend to get a little too frisky for my own good then.

However, since I am not aware of a SINGLE English-to-English translator in machine language (avaialable on the internet), you will—if I have played my cards right—require the services of a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature in order to ascertain my drift.

Or, commit to buying the second beer (assuming I can get to Milwaukee on the cheap), and I will clue you in…

And Michael: I am not clueless about non-breaking space; on the other hand, I am not willing to type SIX characters to do the work of one…not even as a matter of principle. Unless, in so doing, I can really piss some jerk who deserves it off…like all of Craigslist. The whole lot of them deserved to be annoyed. Which I did. Big Time.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Not really interested in your translation. But tell you what, I'll buy you a keg for 6 hours of type design lessons.

Bendy's picture

never mind

Michel Boyer's picture

I am not willing to type SIX characters to do the work of one

No need. I have a little script (it is dated 2009, I used it by then to format things before the pre tag became available) that may do the job (and other things)


sed 's/</\&lt;/g
  s/ /\&nbsp;/g' $1
David Vereschagin's picture

Hmm, I guess they are.


Nick Cooke's picture

You are 34 now and have been drawing letterforms since you were five years old, yet you still need type design lessons? I'd concede defeat if I were you Ryan.

hrant's picture

Actually I'd take an "eternal student" over somebody who thinks they've "arrived" any day.


Charles_borges_de_oliveira's picture

My pet peeve is when people use periods in phone numbers. It looks like a serial number and not a phone number

zeno333's picture

Speaking of phone number notation, here are the supposed standards regarding that subject....!!PDF-E&type=items

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

You are 34 now and have been drawing letterforms since you were five years old, yet you still need type design lessons? I'd concede defeat if I were you Ryan.

Would you? You must be quite a weak person. Have you always ran away with your tail between your legs anytime you couldn't easily master something?

dezcom's picture


Only us geezers know about Wimpy and his Tuesday hamburger payment thing :-)

John Hudson's picture

Oh no, I'm a geezer?

Ryan, I think Nick's point is not that one should turn tail and run from something that is difficult to master, but that one should be realistic after a long period of time about whether one is anywhere near mastering it, whether one is making any progress, and whether one is in fact building on any kind of talent. There are many people in the world who spend decades of their lives trying to master something for which they have no talent, and their stories are generally sorry ones, especially if they had a talent for some other thing that they didn't pursue because they were busy trying to accomplish something to which they were in some way unsuited.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

These are wise words, John. But I'm not giving up after only one year, especially since I've had no training whatsoever. I'm sure apprenticing under a master for a year or so would make a huge difference, if I could find one willing. Didn't you learn from someone else? Didn't Hoefler and Fere Jones? Didn't Hubert Jocham? Didn't Groot?

hrant's picture

I myself am classically trained. I'm self-taught. :->

John: I do agree that getting an objective grip on one's own talents is key. And leveraging them might just be the secret to happiness.


dezcom's picture

If you love designing type then keep doing it, otherwise...

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