It's a common question posed quite often in the grammar community: How many spaces should be used after a period? Some will argue that it's always been two and that people simply got lazy with word processing, and others will insist that two spaces are no longer needed. So which is correct? The issue is actually more about formatting than it is a grammar or punctuation one, and it has everything to do with the evolution of word processing and the printing industry. So let’s start at the beginning.
A Brief History
Long before computers existed, there were typewriters. Before that, there was movable type, or manual printing. Before that, everything was recorded by hand. The evolution of fonts and typeface, along with the history of printing, is actually quite fascinating. But without giving you an in-depth history lesson of everything from Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type to the West or what was known as the “writing ball” typewriter—the first of its kind—to modern-day word processing, let’s talk about why two spaces were ever used.
When letterpress printing still dominated the publishing industry, everything still had to be done by hand. Molds of each letter were used in various font matrices to produce exact copies of letters each time they were pressed onto the material they were printed on. They pretty much worked like giant stamps. As such, each of the letters were the same width within the block. That meant spacing between each word mimicked that of the spacing between sentences. Therefore, it became somewhat difficult to tell where one sentence ended and the other began when quickly glancing at each line.
Monospace vs. Proportional
When typewriters came along, the system was more automated, but there was one carryover: the monospace font. Monospace fonts (also known as non-proportional or fixed fonts) use the same amount of space, or kerning, between each letter. The Courier font is a good example of this. Pull up your favorite word processor, and you’ll see that if you change everything to Courier or Courier New, each letter will occupy an equal amount of space as the next. The space between each word, also referred to as tracking, is also fixed.
Now compare a paragraph of text in Times New Roman to one in Courier New. Which is easier to read? You probably picked the paragraph in Times New Roman. This has everything to do with spacing. They are both serif fonts—meaning they both have stems, or little feet, at the bottom of the letters—but the block-style spacing makes the Courier paragraph a bit more difficult to read.
To offset the difficulty of the monospace font, it became standard practice to use two spaces after each sentence in the days of typewriters. That means anyone who learned to type before word processing became mainstream likely learned to use two spaces. The same is true for anyone who was taught by someone who learned to type with a typewriter. You see the problem with this trend?
Automated Word Processing
Apart from select publishers who still prefer authors to submit their works using a monospace font, the need for two spaces after a sentence has all but vanished. The modern-day word processors are quite adept at compensating for different spaces between letters, words, and sentences. They automatically adjust according to the design of the font family. Guess what that means. ONE space after a period is correct. So for those of us who were lucky enough to learn one space after the period, we’re all set. However, for those who learned the two-space method, it proves a difficult habit to break. So what are some ways of combating it?
Tips for Ridding Yourself of the Two Spaces
- Take advantage of the find and replace feature. Microsoft Word (and most other word processors) have this function, and it’s a great way to quickly eliminate all those extra spaces and even figure out how many you had. The only downside to this is that you might also need to check for triple spaces—I’ve seen it happen often enough—and fix those as well.
- Practice. How do you break a bad habit? You practice replacing it with a good one. In this instance, you simply have to be consciously aware of how many times you’re hitting the space bar at the end of a sentence. It may be rather tedious at first, but it doesn’t take long for most people to make the adjustment. The more you use one space, the easier it becomes to stick with it.
- Train your eyes to catch the extra space. Editors excel at this. It’s one of the reasons we can spot them from a mile away; we’ve trained our eyes to hone in on them!
The bottom line? Use word processing to your advantage. And triple-check the requirements of a publisher before submitting your work to them. Each will have their own style and guidelines. If you don’t follow them, you’ll likely get an automatic rejection.