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

Friday, January 3, 2014

Two Spaces - an Old Typists' Habit?

I've already thoroughly debunked the myth that wide sentence spacing comes from the typewriter.  [And even more thoroughly, in a more recent posting.]  But many myths contain a grain of truth.  One might guess that the typewriter was blamed for wide sentence spacing simply because the "habit" survived longer on the typewriter than it did in the print industry.  It turns out there's more to it than that.

If you don't want to read some of my other blog postings, let me bring you up to speed.  First came very wide sentence spacing, at least two or three hundred years of it, in almost every English language publication (and even hand-written letters) of the day.  Then, at almost the same time in history two machines were invented: the Linotype machine which revolutionized newspaper, magazine, and book printing; and the typewriter, which revolutionized professional correspondence and record keeping.  Initially both technologies continued to use wide sentence spacing.  But in time, various technical and cost-related issues with the Linotype lead to increasingly narrower sentence spacing.  By 1950 most professional publications no longer used extra space for sentences, but most typewritten communications still did.

That brings you up to speed on how we lost the extra space between sentences.  But it doesn't quite explain why there is so much vitriol now against extra space, particularly from editors who lead the charge in telling us that using two spaces is nothing but an old typists habit.

The Linotype saved time and money for a number of different reasons.  One of the more significant reasons was time saved in justifying text.  The Linotype introduced a little piece of hardware called a spaceband, a variable space that could be used between words.  As a line of text was being set, the Linotype operator could with a single lever resize all of the spacebands in the line to get automated and even justification.
Simulation of the operation of spacebands on the Linotype.  (In actual operation, this was all upside down.)

Initially, wide sentence spacing was maintained by adding an additional fixed space (usually an en space) next to the spaceband for sentences.  From a modern point of view one might wonder why they didn't simply "use two spaces", that is two spacebands between sentences.  This could have been because you'd end up with too much expansion between sentences, compared to the expansion between words, and it would have looked bad.  But there was actually a much more important reason.

You weren't allowed to put two spacebands next to each other.

It was physically possible.  But as any well-trained Linotype operator of that era new, this mistake could at best end up with a bad linecasting, with extra fins of metal sticking out where the two spacebands touched.  You might also end up squirting out a bit of hot metal during the casting.  And perhaps worst of all, it was possible to damage the spacebands by putting them next to each other.

This in itself almost seems like the smoking gun.  But Linotype operators were typesetters, not typists.  They still didn't have the "one space or two" mindset of a typist, but rather "how much space".  The Linotype had several different fixed spacing elements that could be combined much as with traditional hand-assembled type, and the typesetter would never place two spacebands together when more space was needed.  If wide sentence spacing was called for, an experienced operator would have no confusion with "two spaces" or putting two spacebands together.

The Linotype used a very different keyboard from a typewriter.  The metal lever on the left was used to place spacebands in the line of text.

This was the case for the first seventy years or so of Linotype operation.  But in the 1950s and 1960s another technology began to become popular, the teletypesetter perforator.  This was not exactly new technology, as the Monotype used something similar since the late 1800s.  But it was relatively new to the Linotype.  And it was introduced to set type faster, and more cheaply.

The teletypesetter separated the typesetting task from the actual running of the Linotype, by storing the typesetting information on perforated tape.  Another machine could then be attached to the Linotype, and replay these typesetting tapes to produce the castings of the lines of text.

One reason this saved time and money was that the Linotype wasn't limited by the speed of the operator.  One Linotype could be run continuously, setting the instructions produced by two or three operators simultaneously.  But another big advantage was that teletypesetters eventually replaced the traditional Linotype keyboard with a modified typewriter keyboard.  The intent was that typists, with a little training, could be used to set type, further saving money by using relatively unskilled labor.

A teletypesetter perforator, with a typewriter keyboard.  The gauges for justification are visible in the upper right.

As the typist typed, the teletypestter punched codes into a paper tape to identify the letters being entered.  When the typist pressed the spacebar, an instruction was added to the tape to use a spaceband.  The teletypesetter also had two gauges to guide the typist in basic typesetting.  They showed the operator the minimum and maximum width of the line, assuming the spacebands in the line were at their minimum or maximum widths.  Once a line of text was long enough for what ever width column was needed, the typist could tell from the gauges.  They'd press the carriage return, the appropriate instructions for a new line would go onto the perforated tape, and the gauges would reset to zero.

Of course, the problem with spacebands still existed, and we now see a very real problem with the typists' habit of pressing the spacebar twice between sentences.  If the typist made this mistake, at best, the error would have to be found and the line of text retyped.  At worst, the mistake might result in damage and repairs and downtime on the Linotype machine.  One can imagine an editor's blood boiling the umpteenth time they had to hear about a delay on the Linotype because a teletypesetter operator had made the dreaded mistake of pressing the spacebar twice.

“By far the biggest item of cost of operation is damage to matrices and spacebands, which to a very great extent is traceable to ignorance on the part of perforator operators of the limitations and performance of the Linotype.” –British Provincial Press Productivity Team, 1952

It's my belief that this is the real source of the myth of the typists' habit.  The two-space habit was a very real problem on a teletypesetter.  It also explains the editors' hatred of the habit, a hatred so strong and deep that it would be passed down to editors today.

The next step in technology was the introduction of computerized justification.  It was no longer necessary for the teletypesetter operators to justify the text.  They could make paper tape instructions with nothing but the plain text.  That tape was fed into a computer reader, which would calculate the justification and line breaks, and produce a new tape with all the needed Linotype instructions.  The software would never place two spacebands together.  This is the source behind the claim that this software would eliminate runs of multiple spaces.  This is true only where spaces really means spacebands.  Other spacing elements could still be combined for additional space, although nearly a century of cost-cutting had mostly eliminated the practice.

This became particularly ironic when the teletypesetter and justification software were transitioned from the Linotype to phototypesetting.  Phototypesetting equipment still had a variable space, and they still called it a spaceband, but the actual spaceband hardware itself no longer existed.  At this point the space and the spaceband were pretty much the same thing.  Even though the original technological reason for eliminating multiple spacebands had disappeared completely, the solution to the problem remained in place.

Modern software still has a notion of a variable space, although nobody calls them spacebands.  Software can also solve many of the other problems that lead to elimination of wide sentence spacing.  Rivers of whitespace can easily be avoided by spacing between letters, and adjusting where words wrap and break.  Yet despite all the power and possibilities of modern technology we are still overrun by worshippers of the Linotype voodoo cult, yelling at us about extra spaces for reasons they don't even remember.

I suppose eliminating spaces has become just another old habit that's too hard to break.


  1. Wonderful! Well-written, informative, and even a good (and somewhat wistful) chuckle at the end.

  2. very informative! and now I'm totally confused as to whether I have an old bad habit or am developing a new one!

  3. Well put! I'm a two space guy. I was taught to do it in high school in the late 70's. My wife, a graphic artist, swears I'll go to hell if I keep it up. LOL

    We suppose my teacher got her lessons before 1960 and just kept the habit alive. Fortunately, I've used printers during my career and never had to deal with a typesetter. I believe she did....

  4. You know what? After reading the whole article, I noticed the sentence spacing control buttons on the top of your blog. I re-read different sections with various sentence spacings, and in every case, I thought the readability was fine. It literally did not matter, and it wasn't even noticeable (except for the huge spacing). I really don't get it. It does not matter. Two spaces is wrong because typographers say it's wrong? Is that their only argument? Sheesh.