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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

One or two spaces after a period? How about three?

The number one myth I see repeated about sentence spacing is that wide spacing came from the typewriter, to make up for the monospaced fonts.  I've talked about it before.  But it seems like it really needs its own dedicated article, and I think I have a more complete argument anyway.

There's basically two parts to this myth.  First, that monospaced fonts demand wider sentence spacing.  Second the statement or implication that wide sentence spacing was created just for the typewriter.

Let's start with the idea that monospaced fonts demand wider sentence spacing.  This is the hardest argument to make, being largely an aesthetic argument.  Still, there's always been a certain logic to visual design.
Growth (shrinkage) of letters from Times New Roman to Courier.

Most of the letters in a proportional font would have to grow significantly to match the size in a monospaced font.  And typically the space character must grow the most.  If we look at the New Times Roman font, we see that the two narrowest characters are the space and the period.  These two characters combined as they would between sentences take up less space than even a pair of "i"s or a pair of "l"s.  (And let me be clear that, contrary to another myth, modern fonts offer no "magic" that fixes sentence spacing; this is probably a topic for future blogging).  In New Times Roman it turns out the letter "n" is exactly the same size as the space and period combined.  The word "no" is twice as wide as the space between sentences.  The word "me" is even wider than that.
Comparison of sizes of various characters, Times New Roman on the left vs. Courier on the right.
But in a monospaced font, every character is the same size as the next.  If you used one period and one space between sentences in Courier (or any monospaced font), together they would be the twice the size of the letter "n" and the same size as the word "no".  In effect, with one space between sentences in both fonts, the monospaced font doubles the visual gap between sentences, relative to the other letters and words.  Or, it doubles the space relative to the letter "n".  Of course even the letter "n" grows going from New Times Roman to Courier, so in effect the sentence spacing in a monospaced font (with only one space) is even more than doubled compared to the proportional font.  The only logical argument you could make is that with those giant spaces and punctuation characters, you'd be better off reducing space between sentences, not increasing it.

But as I said, this is an aesthetic argument, so perhaps applying logic or math is just not relevant.  Fine.  The claim in this myth is that people looked at monospaced fonts, and said "this is unsightly, we must use more spaces".  If so, shouldn't there be a historical record of this?  If this myth is true then we would find narrow sentence spacing, and then the invention of the typewriter, followed by wider sentence spacing (two spaces) only on the typewriter.

And yet this is what printed text looked like before the typewriter:
From The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, printed in 1869.
First, lets get past one other part of this myth that sometimes crops up: the font is proportional.  There are those who are so confused on this issue that they believe that proportional fonts themselves are a modern, post-typewriter invention, but this is not true.  Proportional fonts have been the standard since movable type was invented in the 1450s.  And now look at the sentence spacing: it's very wide.  It's about three times as wide as the space between words, although you'll note that the word spacing varies a bit in order to make each line justify.  Nevertheless, wide sentence spacing existed before the typewriter.  But this was no isolated incident.  Almost everything printed in English used this same standardized spacing.  Here are more examples of sentence spacing, mostly taken from books about printing and typography:

Mechanik Exercises: Or the Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, Joseph Moxon, 1683
New England Courant, December 11 1721, published by James and Ben Franklin (this was the second newspaper published in America, founded in August 1721).
Typographia, John Johnson, 1824
The Practice of Typography: Modern Methods of Book Composition, Theodore Low DeVinne, 1904
Modern Printing volume 2, John Southward, 1915
Note that the last two are actual descriptions of sentence spacing.  The 1904 quote is instructions for the Linotype, while the later 1915 book shows more traditional hand-compositing instructions (although this is a later edition of an 1898 volume, which I was unable to find).

Almost everything printed in English from the late 1500s until around 1950 used more space between sentences than between words in a sentence.  This wasn't some haphazard practice, it was very well-defined: every typography manual I've ever read up until the invention of the Linotype that describes sentence spacing says to use an em quad.  This is a spacing element in handset type that is as wide as the typeface is tall (including the minimal built-in line spacing).  As I mentioned with the illustrations above, the em quad is about three times as large as the spaces used between words in that era (modern fonts tend to use even narrower word spaces, closer to one quarter the size of the em quad).

One of the examples above is from Johnson's Typographia, an early seminal work in typography.  In addition the excerpt shown, it also says the "m-quadrat is the proper space after a full point when it terminates a sentence in a paragraph."  This exact same wording can be found in literally dozens of other books on typography in the nineteenth century, largely because copyright laws were less well-defined back then, and Johnson's Typographia was heavily plagiarized.  Of course Johnson didn't invent this standard.  Here's what a few other books on typography (that did not plagiarize Johnson) say on the subject:
"M-quadrats mostly begin paragraphs, by an indention of the first line ; one of them is likewise the proper space after a full-point, when it terminates a sentence in a paragraph." – Typographia, J. Southward, 1824
"The m-quadrat ... is used ... after full stops, to designate that the sentence is ended." – Universal Technological Dictionary, Volume 1, George Crabb, 1833
"An em quadrat [...] separates one sentence from another when the end is indicated by use of a period" – American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmaking, W. W. Pasko, 1894
On the other hand, there are some texts that don't describe the practice at all.  For example, Joseph Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing" is one of the earliest known works about typography (1673).  He makes no mention at all of sentence spacing (although he uses wide spacing, as shown in one of the illustrations above.)  Several other books on typography gloss over this detail.  How could any comprehensive book on printing or typography skip over something so critical?

Take a look at this:
Enhanced image of the original copy of the Declaration of Independence, 1776.
That's a piece of the Declaration of Independence.  And it uses wide sentence spacing throughout.  But that's got nothing to do with the printing business, right?  Remember that in this era, every single document that was not printed on a printing press was handwritten.  And the standard practice in that era for handwriting was wide sentence spacing, just like the printing business.  (Note that it's unclear to me which came first, as I haven't researched handwriting practices in the 15th or 16th centuries.)  It was what everyone learned to do in school (if they learned to write).  Wide spacing was so ubiquitous in English, some authors felt it literally was not worth mentioning.

It was into this environment that the typewriter was born.  It began production in 1873, and by the mid 1880s began to become a fixture in modernized offices.  It was only natural that the same wide sentence spacing used everywhere else was also used on the typewriter, and that's exactly what was done.  And how much space did they use between sentences?  As I said, the em quad was about three times as big as typical word spaces back then, so naturally most people recommended three spaces between sentences, to replicate professional print quality.

Here's what some sources instructed in those early years.
"Properly divided sentences add considerably to the neatness of a document, and this may be done by spacing three times between each." – The Shorthand Review, Volume 3 No. 4, April 1891 
"... it is well to strike the space-key once after a comma, twice after a colon and semi-colon, and three times after the question mark and full point." – The Shorthand Review, Volume 5 No. 10, October 1893
"A full stop at the end of a sentence should be followed by three spaces, as also the note of interrogation and the note of admiration." – A Manual of the Typewriter: A Practical Guide to Commercial, Literary, Legal, Dramatic and All Classes of Typewriting Work, I. Pitman, 1893
"...and remember to space three times following each sentence." – Typewriting Instructor and Stenographer's Hand-book, Practical Textbook Company, 1892
And here's a typewriter sample from the Remington typewriter catalog in 1886 (those circles are a typewriter keyboard diagram, bleeding through from the reverse side of the page):

Remington Standard Typewriter, typewriter sample, 1886
Not all sources agreed though.  Both "Scott Browne's Typewriting Instructor" from 1882 (ish) and "How to Become Expert in Typing" (1890) stated that two spaces should be used.  There's hardly any mention of a disagreement.  In 1899, "Pitman's Journal of Commercial Education" (also known as the "Phonetic Journal") described an article in "The Gem" and notes its disagreement on spacing with "Pitman's Typewriter Instructor".  And a year earlier, a letter was written to "The Phonographic Magazine" asking the following:
"Are there any stated rules for spacing after punctuation marks in typewriting?  I notice that some writers put a space after a comma, and two spaces after a period, while others do not put any extra space after a comma and only one space after a period.  Which is correct?"
The answer provided was the latter, one after a comma and two after a period.  But it's interesting that the writer had seen such diminishing space on the typewriter.  At any rate, over the next couple of decades, sources all converged on two spaces between sentences.  I've found no explicit statement on why this happened.  But it seems obvious that given the extra wide size of spaces and punctuation on these monospaced typewriters, three spaces just looked too big compared to printed text, and some minority even felt that two were too big.

This is the complete opposite of the modern mythology of sentence spacing.  Remember that the claim is typewriters demanded more space because of the wide and uneven letter spacing.  The myth is false—history shows that typewriters demanded less space than people were used to.

So to review what we've demonstrated here, wide spacing did not come from the typewriter, and the large spaces on the typewriter apparently demanded a change towards less, rather than more space between sentences.

In short, there is not one single shred of this typewriter myth that's true.  In my opinion, it's a great litmus test to see if anyone blabbing on about typography actually has any clue of what they're talking about.

So where did this myth come from?  I covered my hypothesis in a recent blog.  But that's just a bit of the history.  This myth is really about marketing.  It's about people (generally lazy editors) who want to make everyone change their spacing habits by pigeon-holing two-spacers as being old fashioned and clueless.  It seems to me we should be fighting fire with fire.  But that's a topic for another day.


  1. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who recognizes that the notion that proper typography should use narrow spacing after sentences is a comparatively recent invention. Your theory about teletypesetters probably has some truth, though it shouldn't have been hard for a teletypesetter manufacturer to design a mechanism so that any space-band code which followed another would substitute an en-quad. I suspect a bigger issue is with publishers who find that it's easier to achieve consistent results by normalizing everything to one space than by using wider spaces correctly. If a publisher received a single-sentence-spaced document which contained the text:

    ... Fred Baker showed Bob Lyman Jr. Joe Wayland's dance steps near a hole in the floor. ...

    then whoever was setting the type would have to guess whether the text was supposed to be set as one sentence or two, and would risk getting it wrong. Using single-spacing for everything means that even though the reader would have no way of knowing what the text meant, the publisher could be certain of getting it "right".

  2. What about periods relative to quotes? I've read (AP Stylebook) that punctuation goes before the quote. In 7 instances above you put the period before the quote, but 4 times you placed the period after the quote. What rules do you use to distinguish the instances?

    1. Without looking at my text, and hoping I was consistent (sadly I'm usually not), the rule I generally hope to follow is called "logical quoting". In this quoting style, the location of the punctuation depends on whether or not your quotation would logically include that punctuation.

      This style of punctuation was formalized by the late 19th century, where at least one British book on grammar and language recommends this method.

  3. I so very much appreciated this well-researched historical survey to bust a myth that had always struck me as weird. FYI, as a scholar of the sixteenth century, I happened to have images of a manuscript from the 1580s on hand, and I verified that the scribe (an English Jesuit studying in Rome) used gigantic spaces between sentences, even while the messy manuscript was hit-or-miss about using punctuation—thus the giant spaces often substituted a period. I’d post images for you if I could!


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