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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

French Spacing

The term "French Spacing" is best avoided altogether.

Printing in English-speaking countries almost universally used very wide sentence spacing throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (and earlier also, although I haven't researched the 17th century as thoroughly). In France however, the common practice was to use standard word spacing between sentences.  Or at most, an en quad, half as much as the em quad used in English texts.  In my casual review of French texts from the 19th century, I find that the most typical space is word spacing, but upon close examination I see that it is often used inconsistently within a single text.  What I assume they did is attempt to have even spacing, but during justification, if the spacing couldn't be made perfectly even, they would prefer to add the extra space between sentences.  This is a perfectly reasonable approach.

English references on typography during the 19th century hardly mention this at all.  One reference that does is "American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmaking," by Wesley Washington Pasko in 1894.  Even here though, in a long section on the differences between English and French printing, it makes absolutely no mention of sentence spacing.  It's only in the section on the em quadrat that he mentions this practice: "This quadrat is not used in France at the end of complete sentences, but the period is there followed by an en quadrat or by the space of the rest of the line."

Example of word-sized spacing between sentences in a French publication.  From "Essai sur la Typographie" (1854), Ambroise Firmin-Didot.

Notice that in that description, the term "French spacing" is not used at all.  Nor does it appear as an entry in Pasko's dictionary.  The same is true of John Southward's Dictionary of Typography and it's Accessory Arts.  There is no entry at all about "French spacing".  In fact the earliest reference I can find at all to this phrase is another Southward book, Modern Printing Volume 1, published in 1915 (I have not been able to see the 1899 edition of this book).  In this book, the index does in fact list "French spacing".  But when you refer to the page in question, that phrase is not used at all.  Again in the context of the em quad and it's use between sentences, Southward simply says "French book printing forms an exception to this."

It isn't until 1939 that I find this phrase used in a text. The Complete Desk Book, by Christopher Orlando Sylvester Mawson and John William Robson describes French versus American spacing:
"French spacing and American spacing refer to the amount of space between sentences. In the former only a spaceband follows the period. In the latter there is an en quad plus the spaceband."
Note that "spaceband" refers specifically to Linotype's automatically justifying space element, i.e. a word space.  The timing of this term appearing is interesting because in 1939 the transition to "French" spacing in America was in full swing, and would be mostly the norm in books, magazines, and newspapers within ten more years.  This makes sense when you think about it.  When wide sentence spacing was so ubiquitous in English language printing,  you'd hardly need a phrase to differentiate between different styles.  Only when both styles were common in our culture was it necessary to have phrases to describe one or the other.

And this sowed the seeds of confusion.

Fast forward thirty or more years, and people in America are so used to seeing "French" spacing that it no longer makes sense to refer to it as French.  And so, inevitably, the term flip-flopped, or at least it tried to.  The first chink in the armor that I can find is in 1977.  In "Don't Call It Cold Type" by Frank J. Romano, he describes French spacing as using a thin space after sentences in addition to the word space.  This would be slightly wider, although nowhere near as wide as was common in English texts.  This is almost factually correct, since the French would traditionally use a thin space before the period where English texts did not.  However it seemed that Mr. Romano meant that in English we use only a word space, where the French used a word space plus a thin space.

Mr. Romano accelerated things in 1984, in "The TypEncyclopedia".  Here his error is more explicit:
"Additional space at the ends of sentences is called French spacing, a very old practice, commonplace in books up through the nineteenth century."
He's completely reversed the meaning of French spacing, relative to English/American spacing.  Still, this was an isolated mistake.  It was repeated again in 1986 by Printing Abstracts, Volume 41:
"'French spacing' is the typographic equivalent of placing two spaces after end-of-sentence punctuation.  It adds to reader comprehension and legibility, but is currently somewhat out of vogue."
Another isolated event.  But in 1994, I find three separate references by different authors, all making this same error: "Glossary of Typesetting Terms," Richard Eckerseley; "The Best 1001 WordPerfect Tips Ever," Mary V. Campbell, and "Step-by-Step Graphics, Volume 10".  To be fair, the majority of references still get it right relative to the original meaning and history.  But after 1994, the floodgates seem to be open, and the reversed meaning appeared in numerous books.

This reversal was probably inevitable.  Americans tend to sneer at the French, and anything "French" besides French Fries tends to be frowned upon.  So how could standard practice here ever be described as "French".  It's culturally inconsistent.  Calling the more alien practice of wide sentence spacing "French" feels more correct.

So where does that leave us now?  Modern references are a complete mess, with many still describing the original meaning, while many others use the reversed definition.  It's difficult to tell who is "winning" at this point.

In my opinion, we should simply stop using the words "French" and "English" in describing spacing.  They were never really used at all during the period of time where they were descriptive of common practice.  And there's very little chance of successful communication when using them.  For "English spacing" (the original meaning), "wide sentence spacing" is a nice drop-in replacement.  There's no clear winner for "French spacing", although "narrow sentence spacing" isn't awful, but it doesn't really clarify that the sentence spacing matches the word spacing.  Another option is "word-spaced sentences".  Or just explain in a complete sentence that you mean that sentences do not have extra space.

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