That's the tag line on my Twitter account. It's been my motto as I approach this issue. It's my attempt to be fair and even-handed, and to avoid being preachy. However as I learn more about this issue, I'm beginning to realize that it might be wrong. Or at least incomplete.
When it comes to typography, I stand by it. If you have the luxury of choosing your sentence spacing, by all means, choose whatever sentence spacing you find appropriate for your composition. Wide spacing, or word spacing, a little wide or very wide, or even narrower than word spacing if you like.
But what I've learned is there is a very clear right answer on how many times to hit the space bar after a full stop.
We must use two spaces after a full stop.
It's odd that I'd say this, considering such brash and pedantic statements from the monospacers like Farhad Manjoo are what set me down this obsessive compulsive trail. But unlike their reasons, which are clearly wrong and easily dismantled, I have a reason that is practical, and actually important.
First, let me be completely clear. The printed space between sentences in a published work is not what I am talking about here. I am only talking about the number of times you should hit the space bar after a sentence. These things are not the same today, although they used to be. On a typewriter they were the same thing. On a Merganthaler Linotype hot metal typesetting machine, they were the same thing (although it was two different kinds of spaces). But on computers, they are not.
Computers can format your sentences however you like. There's just one catch: computers must first know what a sentence is.
Wait, isn't that an easy one? Actually, it is not. The problem is that the meaning of a period is ambiguous. It's not just a full stop. It's also used to mark abbreviations. And for initials. And as a decimal point. And after enumerations. And as part of an ellipsis. These things don't trip up human beings that often. But for computers, deciding if that period is a full stop defies all attempts at a solution. And there have been scores of scholarly papers on this very subject of sentence boundaries. Let's look at a worst case scenario:
"Who's going?" "You and I. Smith is going too."Is that "You and I." followed by "Smith is going too."? Or is that referring to someone named "I. Smith"? With no context, there's no way for even a human being to decide. So for a complete solution we need a computer program that is capable of understanding context. This is way beyond our current state of the art in computer software.
But that's just one example, right? I mean, even people aren't perfect, so there must be an approach that's close enough? Well, that depends on what you mean. I've seem algorithms that claim to be successful 95% of the time or even 98% of the time. Let's think about that - 98% means that your average article longer than 50 sentences is likely to have an ambiguous sentence boundary in it that the computer can't figure out.
So why do we care if a computer can parse what we say? One practical reason is for machine translation. Machines that are trying to translate what you are communicating can do a much better job if they know what a sentence is. There's also text-to-speech for the visually impaired (and others), which requires a knowledge of sentence boundaries to yield realistic inflection. And of course it's useful for those who want wider sentence spacing. But the larger reason is simply that we are trying to communicate, and if a computer is going to mess it up, theres a chance a person might blow it too.
This whole problem could be solved if we only had an unambiguous full stop, rather than the confusing period. But actually we do, or at least, we did. For hundreds of years, it wasn't just professional printers that added extra space after sentences. When students learned basic penmanship in school, they were also taught to add extra space between sentences. There were no typewriters or computers. All person-to-person communications before the typewriter were handwritten, and people penned their letters with extra space between sentences.
In other words, the unambiguous full stop is simply a period combined with extra space. But we are losing this standard piece of punctuation. We are losing it to technology. We lost it to the poor formatting capabilities of the Linotype, and the expense of corrections. We lost it to the general desire for faster and cheaper printing, and even the slight savings in paper. We lost it to early web design standards that ignored the issue, because HTML was never meant to be so heavily typographic, and the designers didn't want to bother.
But that's all in the past. Right now, we are losing it to a group of people who have declared war on the extra space.
No, I don't mean typographers. You do often see claims that typographers everywhere have declared extra spacing to be wrong. What you don't see is hoards of actual typographers saying that. Sure you see some here and there. But there's also quite a few typographers who don't think it's such a hard and fast rule. And even a few who long for the days of wider sentence spacing. Despite any claims, typographers are not the driving force in this war.
The real leaders of the crusade are the editors. If you see someone complaining on line about this issue, by far the best guess is that they are an editor of some sort, and they are complaining about editing out extra spaces. It's unfortunate that no one has bothered to tell them of the wonders of search-and-replace. Or of requesting new features in their software if it doesn't do what they need. Or of buying someone else's software. All of these choices would alleviate the editor's pain without destroying a basic piece of punctuation. But instead of fixing their software, they have chosen to bend the habits of the world to their will.
It's more than just unfortunate. It's tragic. Editors are entrusted with preserving our communications, with standardizing them. And yet it is editors who, simply out of plain laziness or technological ignorance, are willing to cast aside the unambiguous full stop like it was nothing more than yesterday's newspaper, or this morning's toilet paper.
In print, the unambiguous full stop disappeared thanks to cost-cutting. Luckily, we had typewriters there to keep it alive, and teach us all the two-space habit. But now we're in the computer age. Much software has learned it's lesson from typewriters, and those two spaces are still used and recognized in a wide number of software packages. But unfortunately there are other software packages that don't understand. They learned their lessons from a print industry, without understanding that the loss of extra spacing was simply a cost-cutting strategy.
The irony is that today, the costs that lead to the demise of wide sentence spacing in the print industry no longer apply. Thanks to the two-space typing habit it's a trivial change to allow the print industry to reliably typeset sentences according to any desired style. And it's trivial for translation software, and text to speech software to reliably detect sentences and use that information.
Ultimately we write so that we can communicate our ideas clearly and effectively. And our most basic unit of communication is the sentence. Isn't it worth providing a reliable way of deciding what is and is not a sentence?
On the other hand, we could all abandon that extra space and just leave it up to chance. Because think of all the time those editors can save!