(A great place to start if you're new here is my Wide Spacing Roadmap.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

That Slate Article

That Slate article by Farhad Manjoo is insanely popular.  It drives me nuts because it's all lies and distortions.  I didn't want to give his article any more attention than it already has, but apparently that approach was not working.

Here then is a list of many of the factual problems in this article:
“Who says two spaces is wrong?” they wanted to know. ... Typographers, that's who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences.
Not true.  As a group, typographers have come to no such conclusion.  Some people who call themselves typographers make this claim, but many do not.  There's no sort of typographers' convention or union or club where they all get together and decide these things.  There's no document, no vote, no scholarly paper or journal.  There is only Farhad Manjoo telling you so.
James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing.
Let's look at what Mr. Felici actually said in that article he linked to.  For starters he said this: “I am not a type historian”.  OK, so not an authority on the subject.  He also says that the books he can find all seem to use wide sentence spacing.  That hardly sounds inconsistent.

In fact, if Mr. Felici were a type historian (and honestly he is somewhat, just not enough on this particular topic), he'd know that from about 1550 to 1900 was a period of incredible consistency in type.   Almost every book in the english language was printed with an em space between sentences.  And every typography manual in that period that describes sentence spacing says to use an em space (or more accurately an em quad).

Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces.
Mr. Felici didn't say this so I assume that we're back to Mr. Manjoo speaking from his posterior.  In fact as I said, the em space was incredibly standard.  Further, no typographer at that time counted spaces one, two, three.   They measured the distance in ems and used whatever spacing elements (thin space, 5-per-em, 3-per-em, en space, em quad, hair space) were needed to make things fit.  Anyone who knows anything about typography should know this.
Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type.
Typographers had plenty of options for adding emphasis to type, and they used them.  In fact one could argue that they had more control over spacing for emphasis than we have today.  As for standards and conventions, some details (but not sentence spacing) were a mess early on.  But by the 18th and 19th centuries, those other details had been ironed out.  Much like today, there were certainly issues that were hotly debated.  Sentence spacing was never one of those issues though, so I'm not sure how any of this is relevant even if it were accurate.
But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.
Since it rests on a lie, this is a distortion.  It's not true that they “began to adopt best practices”.  Best practices changed after being standard for over three hundred years.  If he had said it that way, you might ask the obvious question “what changed?”.  What changed was industrialization, and widespread use of the Linotype, a machine that was severely limited in spacing capabilites compared to hand-set type.

I cover this in several other articles on this blog, but essentially we stopped using wide sentence spacing because it complicated the printing process (see these postings: “A River Runs Through It”, and “The Cost of Printing Errors on the Linotype”).
Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule.

This is an outright lie.  For one thing, he immediately mentions that the American Psychology Association thinks that two spaces are needed.  And then twists the story by saying that they prefer one space for published works, although I can find no evidence that this is the case.  He goes on to quote the Chicago Manual of Style.  That's interesting because on their website they say (in the first answer) “Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer [two spaces]” Of course, Mr. Manjoo does not quote the Modern Language Association's answer, which says “As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks”.

As I said earlier, there's no organization of typographers in which such a thing could be decided.  There's not even a clear definition of “typographer” with many apparently having applied this label to themselves (which may be part of the problem).
Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do.
(First a nitpick: “began to type wrong”?  Were they typing more correctly before typewriters existed?  There was no such thing as typing.)

There's a significant problem here.  The typewriter was invented in 1873 (ish).  And yet wide sentence spacing was standard practice in English for hundreds of years before that.  And for another 80 years after its invention.  Wide spacing has literally nothing to do with the typewriter.

If you don't believe me, you can just look at almost any old book before the invention of the typewriter.  Or you can listen to Mr. Felici, in the very same article that Mr. Manjoo references above, where he says “the use of double spaces (or other exaggerated spacing) after a period is a typographic convention with roots that far predate the typewriter.”

Here's what actually happened: people used wide sentence spacing on the typewriter, because that's what they'd been seeing in print, and doing in handwriting, for longer than anyone alive could remember.

(By the way, the typewriter does play a real role in this myth.  The two space typewriter habit caused a real problem with later Linotype machines.  I blogged about this in “Two Spaces - an Old Typists' Habit?”.)
Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.
As I already pointed out, this is not why they adopted the two space rule.  But I did hold back a little bit above, so that I could explain here that not only is he wrong about the adoption of the practice, he (and lots of other self-proclaimed typographers) have the story on the look of monospaced fonts 100% backwards.

Going from proportional to monospaced, most characters get wider.  But none more so than the space and period.  For proportional fonts, one space plus a period would be about the size of the letter “n” or maybe even a little smaller.  In a monospaced font, one space plus a period would be twice the size of the letter “n”.  The only sensible conclusion is that monospaced fonts needed less space than the print industry.

Don't believe me?  Look at history.  Remember when I said they used wide spacing on the typewriter to match print?  They matched it literally.  The print industry's em quad was about three times as large as most word spaces, so on the typewriter initially most people used THREE spaces between sentences.  But because of the monospaced font, this made gaps that appeared much larger than what people were used to seeing in proportional fonts, so eventually people fell back to two spaces.  [Update: 3/20/2014, I added a new posting that goes into more detail on this.]

History is clear that the typewriter demanded less space between sentences, not more.
Besides, the argument in favor of two spaces isn't any less arbitrary.
That's only true if you don't bother to offer the arguments in favor of two spaces.

Here's what two spaces gives us: an unambiguous full stop.  The period means more than just the end of a sentence, it also is used in numbers and initials and abbreviations, and for other reasons.  This can cause confusion, e.g. “Who's going?” “You and I. Smith also.”

Is that two people (You and Isabelle Smith) or three (you, me, and Smith)?

Of course since we read left-to-right, most of the issues of confusion aren't even technically ambiguous.  The grammar is obvious after you stop and analyze it.  But you shouldn't have to stop and analyze sentence structure, you should just read.  Wide sentence spacing avoids such issues.

As far as aesthetics, modern technology could give us a solution.  You could easily have a sentence spacing preference that adjusted the width of visible sentence spacing to the reader's aesthetic choice.  Except for one little catch.  Before a computer could do that (reliably) it'd have to know what a sentence is.  Which would be far easier with two spaces between sentences.  (Note that this blog implements this very feature.  The control is at the head of the right column).

So perhaps the best argument for TWO spaces between sentences is so that people like Mr. Manjoo could reliably and easily avoid looking at them.
Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.
That's how his article opens.  If every single factual argument he offers is in fact not true, can we still believe his thesis?


  1. Your sober response to the sanctimonious certitude at Slate is quite refreshing. Why oh why do so many think that 2 spaces is correct at the end of a sentence? How about that millions of us learned this rule in elementary school, and didn't go to a college that offers degrees in self-righteous typography.

  2. Fabulous response to the pontificating idiot at Slate. Thank you.

    I have a punctuation question for you....I was taught that commas and periods are always placed INSIDE the quotation marks, but I notice that you often place them there a nuance of which I'm not aware? Could you please cite a source for me? THANKS.

  3. Hi Di,

    Sorry for not answering sooner. You should look up "logical quotation marks" or something like that. Basically I put the punctuation where it make sense, i.e. if the punctuation is part of what is being quoted it goes inside, but if it's part of what I'm writing it goes outside.

    Note that I'm not necessarily married to this method, as I readily acknowledge that the traditional typographical method of placing them usually looks better in terms of spacing. EXCEPT in monospaced fonts, where the equal width of all punctuation makes both look bad. So even if the two space thing can't be blamed on the typewriter, perhaps my preference for logical quotation marks can be.

    [ugh, deleted and reposted because of too many typos]

  4. "The custom of using two word spaces after a sentence-ending period was not invented on the typewriter, although it became standard practice there. The use of wide spaces (ems or even wider) goes back to at least the mid-eighteenth century, a hundred years before the typewriter was intended. The first printing of the United States Declaration of Independance uses such spacing. As a style, this died out in the twentieth century, with its last vestiges appearing in the 1940s, decades before the rise of computerized typography. It remained a custom on the typewriter, though, because double spaces are proportionately more appropriate for the airy monospaced faces standard on these machines." The Complete Manual on Typography (2013), Felici, p. 84

    1. I agree with Felici on everything here except that last bit. Double spaces are not more visually appropriate for monospaced fonts (if anything, the opposite is actually true). Double spacing was preserved because there was no reason to change, while the print industry was trying to print more cheaply.

      The Slate article misrepresented Felici to a very significant degree.