I’m normally an even-tempered person. If I fly off the handle, I assure you that it’s for comedic effect only. In reality, I’m the guy who doesn’t get emotional about politics or religion or the other fundamental building blocks of our society.
However, once in a great while, an issue comes along that strikes such an emotional chord with me that I feel compelled to address it in an immediate and forceful manner.
Whether to put one space or two at the end of sentences is one such issue.
A recent Slate article by Farhad Manjoo prompted this refutation. I regret that I only saw it for the first time yesterday. The article published nearly a month ago.
The first problem I have with the piece is one of tone. Rather than beginning by saying “Here’s a fact about proper syntax that most people miss,” or “Despite popular opinion to the contrary, experts agree that . . . ,” Manjoo begins by saying that “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.” (Emphasis his)
In case you missed the message contained within his redundancy, not only is using two spaces after a sentence inferior, but there is no valid argument in its favor. It’s “settled law,” so to speak.
He goes on to say, “What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.”
What galls me about one-spacers is their obliviousness to irony.
Ok, we get it. This guy is a genius, and we’re all idiots. And an unfortunate choice of tone is entirely subjective. This doesn’t speak to the argument itself.
That brings me to the second mistake Manjoo makes. He decides to give credibility to the historical origin of the one-space “rule.” To wit: “[What authority contradicts the two-space style?] Typographers, that’s who . . . Hundreds of years ago[,] some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space . . . But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices.”
He goes on to say that European typesetters typesettled on one space about a hundred years ago, and the American typesetting community began to do so not long after. Then a strange thing happened.
A couple of decades after the establishment of the “rule,” an 1870 invention called the typewriter became ubiquitous in the American workplace. He asserts that the technical limitations of the now-obsolete manual typewriter caused the two-space camp to gain momentum during the mid-twentieth century, saying that “To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong [sic].”
Manjoo comments that the manual typewriter used “monospaced” type, meaning that all characters occupied a standardized width. Thus, an “I” was as wide as an “M,” and so on. Later technologies were able to employ the same kinds of proportional typeface that were used in printing presses.
His point is that the two-space practice exists solely because the monospaced type used in the manual typewriter made it necessary. However, by his own admission, the one-space “rule” wasn’t adopted by typesetters until the early twentieth century: Several decades after the invention of the typewriter, and centuries after the invention of typesetting itself.
This is revisionism. He’s saying that a rule created in the early 1900’s was abandoned later because of the popularity of a technology that had already been sold to the public for two generations by the time consensus among typesetters created this alleged standard. The connection between these two bits of history may be more tenuous than is presented in the article.
But let’s assume for a moment that his history is solid. In other words: Typesetters created this rule early in the last century, but, much to their collective chagrin, using only one space between sentences vanished quickly among the public just a few short years later once typewriter popularity in the American business world reached some mysterious critical mass. That still doesn’t rectify the biggest problem with the article.
Manjoo cites the Chicago Manual of Style and other influential reference books in saying that the one-space “rule” is one of the “canonical” pillars of modern syntax. However, when one follows Manjoo’s own link to the CMOS website, you find only a Q&A wherein the CMOS representative says:
The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was) . . . [I]n our efficient, modern world, I think there is no room for two spaces after a period. In the opinion of this particular copyeditor, this is a good thing.
That hardly sounds like a fully-formed “rule” to me.
But let’s take this one step further and concede that point as well. Namely, that the CMOS has a rule against putting two spaces after a sentence.
Manjoo seems to mistake one kind of “fact” for another. The rules in the CMOS and similar references are entirely contrived. I’m not suggesting they should be ignored, or that they’re always unjustified. Rather, I’m saying that there are different levels of authoritative information.
The Chicago Manual of Style is not a thoroughly-researched scientific study. Nor is it an ancient, sacred text discovered in a cave by archaeologists. It is a guidebook that is revised regularly by humans like you and me. To his credit, Manjoo acknowledges that these rules are arbitrary, but that’s not really my point.
For something to be “totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong,” it has to be part of an objective reality. For example, if I were to say, “On February 10, 2011, Barack Obama was the President of the United States” or “Mars is not the largest planet in our solar system,” that would be rationally irrefutable. However, if I were to say, “The speed limit on Road X is 35 miles per hour, which proves that the speed limit on Road X should be 35 miles per hour,” the argument becomes circular and overstates the ephemeral authority upon which it is based.
The argument that Manjoo is making reminds me of an equally-self-serving one that I hear all the time in discussions about constitutional law. Namely, the argument that overturning a given case would be unwise because it would contradict years of precedent, ignoring the fact that the case in question itself contradicted years of precedent.
In short, we pick the authority we like and imbue it with a super-authoritative quality.
The truth is that these are not objective realities. They’re subjective ones. We can change them at any time if we decide something else makes more sense. Yes, the people behind the CMOS may make a weak recommendation in favor of one space, but when that advice is largely ignored and could be changed formally tomorrow or next year or in 2015, that recommendation is no longer dispositive.
And, so, finally, we come to the crux of this issue: Is it a good idea to have one space or two after sentences?
This is thankfully the simplest part of the entire case I’m making. The reason we need two spaces instead of one is because this:
By coincidence, Dr. White lives on White Dr. White is a good doctor.
doesn’t read the same as this:
By coincidence, Dr. White lives on White Dr. White is a good doctor.
This may seem a silly example, but the fact is that having an extra space between sentences is important because the period performs more than one function. We need a way to distinguish between a period that ends a sentence and one that serves another purpose, such as abbreviation of a title. This has nothing to do with the history of the typewriter, or the fonts used by a modern computer, or even the consensus among typesetters circa World War I.
At a minimum, this is an issue that is debatable and far from settled. The idea that it’s a self-evident and eternal truth is an inaccuracy grounded in arrogance.*
Having said all that, I’m prepared to fight anyone who thinks that “your” is an acceptable method of shortening “you are.”
Until then: 2-space 4-life.