How Many Times Do We Have to Say Something for It to Be True?

“A typewriter is a means of transcribing thought, not expressing it.”
Marshall McLuhan

There is more to good writing than sitting down and typing.  Almost all writing requires research of some kind.  The question is, when have you done enough research?  How I conduct research often depends on what I’m writing.  I tend to research my blog posts as I write them.

However, even research can cause problems, is the information in your reference correct? Previously I wrote about two commonly cited studies that are either miss represented or didn’t exist, Do You Know If Your References Are Biting You?   In my last blog post, Should We Care About Grammar and Structure?, I talked about grammar and its impact on readability.  Specifically, the effect of two spaces vs. one space after the period.

Today in 2020, the style guides say to use one space after the period.  When I was in school, the teachers taught us to use two spaces. When did the rule about spacing at the end of the sentence change? To answer that question, I will probably need a library, since I don’t own every version of every style guide published.

Several articles did explain why the rule changed while searching for when I ran into the same why argument repeatedly.  An article from the Atlantic, Why You Should Never, Ever Use Two Spaces Between Sentences, sums it up nicely.

“To accommodate that machine’s (typewriter) shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong.  … 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 challenging 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.”

Therefore, the only reason we used double-spacing at the end of a sentence is because of typewriters.  Typewriters used monospaced fonts, which produced variable spacing inside of words and sentences.  Because of the variable spacing, people used two spaces at the end of the sentence to enhance readability.

Now, if the typewriter and its monospaced font are the sources of double-spacing, then the appearance of double-spacing should correlate with the rise and fall of the typewriter.  According to A Brief History of Typewriters, Pellegrino Turri built the first functional typewriter in 1808. Commercial typewriter production begins in the 1870s.  The end of the typewriter came about with the advent of the word processor, first, as a standalone device and then as a program on every personal computer. IBM invented the term word processor in the 1960s. By the 1990s–2000s, the typewriter had been almost entirely replaced by the computer. Therefore, the commercial lifespan of the typewriter is about 130 years.

Now let’s look at style guides if the argument about one space versus two spaces is correct. Before and after the lifespan of the typewriter, we should see the rule is for a single space. According to The History and Art of Printing, written in 1771.   The author Philip Luckombe states the rule about spacing after periods is “Another rule that is inculcated into beginners, is, to use an m quadrat after a Full-point:” (page 396) An m quadrat is a larger space.

The print shop at the University of Chicago published the first Chicago Manual of Style in 1906; a pdf copy is available here.  According to the Chicago Manual rule 245 on page 83 “A standard line should have 3-em space between all words not separated by other punctuation points than commas,” With regards to periods the 1906 Chicago Manual states “an em-quad after periods, and exclamation and interrogation points, concluding a sentence.”  3-em is shorthand for 1/3 of an em space.  Therefor the Chicago Manual calls for three spaces after a period.

The above examples show for 100 years before, and at least 36 years after the advent of the typewriter, style guides were recommending multiple spaces at the end of the period.  One could argue that for most of the formalized history of typesetting, the preference has been for multiple spaces after the end of a sentence.  Therefore, the argument that typewriters were the reason for double spacing is not valid.  Double spacing existed because typographers felt it made for an improved reading experience.

Why the rule changed from one space to two is not clear.  One common argument is a single space is cleaner. As Farhad Manjoo states, “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.”  The problem with the idea about holes is that it has been well-known as a potential problem for a long time. 

Again, in The History and Art of Printing, the author talks about the possibility of producing a text that looks full of holes.  “but at the same time, they (young typesetters) should be informed, not to do it (use multiple spaces at the end of a sentence), where an author is too sententious, and makes several short periods in one paragraph.  In such case the blanks of M-quadrats will be contemptuously called Pigeon holes; which, and other such trifles, often betray a compositor’s judgment,” (pages 396-397) Specifically spacing is something authors expected trained typesetters to be aware of and correct.

In Two Spaces – an Old Typists’ Habit? the author blames technology and cost savings, specifically, the linotype and the teletypesetter.  These two pieces of machinery allowed publishers to hire typists to replace typesetters. I find arguments concerning the impact of cost and the loss of skilled expertise much more compelling than the typewriter.

One thing I think the typewriter and early word processors did was confuse people about the separation of content and layout.  The content of a piece of writing is in its words and grammar.  The layout is dependent on the item printed and the audience.  It used to be a common practice to publish science fiction stories in multiple monthly parts in magazines.  Later, these stories were put together and published as books.  The layout between the two publications’ magazines and books was different while the content was identical.

With the creation of things like CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and variable layouts, people again realize that content is independent of the layout.  The independence of layout from content led to the realization that publishers should structure the layout to the publication type and use. These realizations will likely open the door to future style guide built around research and skilled practice, not cost savings.

For now, we should use one space (I’m sure I will fail at that) because that is what the style guides say.  Not because we no longer use typewriters.  Lastly, repetition never makes something true.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

PS:  If you are interested in pursuing this question further. There are several other articles about the typewriter not being the reason for two spaces at the end of the sentence.  One of them Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history) uses several of the same sources as I do. However, the author goes into much greater depth.

Additionally, the author seems to have answered the original question that sent me down this rabbit hole.  The eleventh edition of the Chicago Manual of Style published in 1949 was the first edition to adopt the single space rule.  Another good article about the typewriter not being the source of the two-space rule is One or two spaces after a period? How about three?

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