Without ever intending it, I struck a raw grammatical nerve during a slow day. The immediate cause was almost perfectly banal: an email from a colleague in which every new sentence began with three spaces. Like this. Because mine is a sensitive soul, with an acute ability to detect and react poorly to even minute changes in the “Proper Order of Things,” I couldn’t let this offense against grammar and good taste go unpunished. I took my complaint to the appropriate forum for overzealous outrage: Twitter.
A saner man, of course, would have let the whole thing blow over. The issue of spacing after a period is so trivial that it didn’t even merit a mention in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. But no issue, once voiced on Twitter, is too banal to provoke, and it was only a matter of time before my single-space supremacy faced challenge. I took to Google to arbitrate the dispute.
As it turns out, both the dissenters and I were in the right. The issue of sentence spacing, like all typographical conventions, is a victim of circumstance, and partisans on both sides tend to trace their allegiance back to different writing technologies. By the late 18th century, major publishing houses had essentially codified conventions about spacing, with the result that a single space was the standard after a period. There was a twist, however: the space was about one and a half times larger than a regular, between-words, space. From these origins, a controversy emerged. In true European fashion, it matched the English, champions of the double space, against the French and their single-space preference.
The emergence of the typewriter in the early 20th century tipped the balance in favor of the English. The problem was one of spacing — most typewriters used monospace font, which tends to stretch the gap between individual letters, with the result that a double space enhances readability. At the same time, the English style did not achieve complete dominance in the exciting world of typography. For many publishing houses, the extra spaces wasted space on the page, incurring easily avoidable losses.
The advent of formatted font on typewriters, which no longer assigned identical width to vastly different character shapes, stole the readability edge from double-spacing. With the arrival of the personal computer, monospaced typography became a thing of the past, and the tastemakers of typesetting shifted back towards the French standard, of a single space after the period — though, hilariously enough, ‘French spacing’ had morphed to mean the formerly anti-Gallic double space. Several style guides have now codified this entirely contingent result, though typically with a note that many learned otherwise in typing class. There’s actually an interesting generational component at play, too: both my parents, weaned on typewriters, continue to follow the two-space rule.
Through multiple sea changes in publishing, the single vs. double spacing debate has endured, and it certainly won’t be resolved anytime soon — much to the chagrin of typography fanatics. My own forays into the history of printing style have revealed the fundamental, and embarrassing, secret: the two are equally valid. For lack of any inherent standard of judgment, we must consign ourselves to the fact that the number of spaces a writer uses to begin a fresh sentence has no bearing on the quality of his or her work, but is rather an unconscious tic owing to the vagaries of technological development. Those of us who would pretend otherwise — including T.S. Eliot, who was allegedly upset with the use of single-spacing in the first editions of “The Waste Land” — perhaps need to find a better hobby. Although on that account, I can only speak for myself.