Space oddities

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Many writers, even young ones whose fingers never hovered over the keys of a humming IBM Selectric, insist on putting two spaces after a period in their manuscripts. This is way old school. Typewriters, you see, used to use fixed-width fonts — Courier mostly — and the two spaces after a sentence helped with readability of the typescript. Typesetters were in the same boat.

But now we have computers with variable-width fonts, and a lot of our work is converted to one of the main ebook formats (EPUB or MOBI) for publication. The two spaces after sentence-ending periods can foul you up.

Trust me, I’ve seen it in my own stuff. An errant extra space that happens to come at the end of a line in a given font size (controlled by the reader, don’t forget) can cause a weird-looking layout that distracts easily distracted eyeballs. And in paperback formatting, you can get unjustified line breaks because the software is seeing the extra space as a character. You or your designer will have to fix these by hand. Time-consuming.

When I edit on the computer, I set the word processor to “show invisibles,” which refers to code symbols for hard returns, paragraph breaks, and page breaks. Spaces too, so it’s easy to see where you have extras. I do this so I can send back to the client a file that is as clean as it can be for the ebook formatter.

You can also remove extra spaces with a search-and-replace sweep, if you’ve already finished a manuscript and can’t stand the idea of going through the whole thing again line by line. We understand.

Now, I know that some style guides choose to retain the two spaces, and some of them claim that it improves readability. But since most print and digital publications have justified margins, spacing between words is variable, including the spaces between sentences. If you have that extra space, the result can become positively gaping, like a missing tooth. Besides, who reads typescripts anymore?

Editors, I guess. Like me. But I’m willing to put my own needs aside for your sake.

You’ll find plenty of sticklers out there who still prefer two spaces, but their arguments are specious, in my opinion. They just like doing things the way they’ve always done them.

Join the rest of us, won’t you? — enter the 21st century and use one space after your periods.

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13 thoughts on “Space oddities

  1. Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    I could use some new readers over at Indie-Scribable, so please drop on by, read this, and follow! And spread the word that I’m available for proofreading and copyediting of indie books in any genre. Gracias, amigos!

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  2. A couple of years ago, a good friend called me up to ask about the two spaces thing because the person who reviewed her work before it was finalized told her she was tired of eliminating all of the extra spaces after the periods. My friend and I agreed that it is two spaces after the period because, you know, that was what we were taught. And to this day, that’s what I do. It’s as natural as breathing air for me. I don’t think about it. I just type the period and then my thumb hits the space bar twice. But I’m working on it. I get it now.

    The good thing is that the conversation with the friend back then inspired a short little, endearing story that I really like — whether anybody else does, who knows.

    https://markpaxson.com/2014/02/19/spaces-after-the-period/

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    1. Nice piece. You obviously put a lot more thought into the issue than I have!

      This “old habits die hard” thing keeps coming up. I read a while back that if your shoes keep coming untied you might be tying them backwards, i.e., doing a granny knot as opposed to a square not. Doh! I had to train myself to do it right. (Then again, I’m left-handed, so that’s probably why I was doing it backwards in the first place ….)

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  3. It’s funny you bring this up (and nice blog post title, witty): I’m editing now on a contract with Microsoft and finding some folks do that double space thing. Very old school, and I have to yank them out, those little spaces. I used to use that paragraph command (the show invisibles) when I edited and now I think I have to go back to that, GOD: so damn hawk-eyed. The extra spaces is funny, good topic. Thanks for explaining the background and “why.” I had a Selectric and the fucker stuttered.

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    1. I’ve never used the two spaces, but that’s probably because I never took a typing class. Learned on the fly, so to speak.

      I kind of miss the Selectric, though. I loved watching that little font ball twirl.

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  4. I’ve been wondering about the two-space thingy, too. I did take a typing class in high school and so have dutifully always included two spaces at the end of a sentence. But I think the two-space thingy is also an American usage; that is, in England and elsewhere, don’t they only use one space? Anyway, I’ve been doing some editing at work and, so far, the two-space thingy is still in play. The format is not full justification and these are just Word documents that, at best, might be converted to PDFs, so there aren’t any gaping holes in the text. Still, I wonder now if I should have gone ahead and removed all those extra spaces. As you can see by my comment, it’s hard to stop an old, old habit 😉

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