Much Ado About Nothing

I recall that when I learned to type, I was taught to type two spaces after the period following a sentence. Apparently, while this is a very common rule, it is erroneous. Here’s Farhad Manjoo’s delicious rant on the subject in Slate:

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.* You’d expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you’d be wrong; every third e-mail I get from readers includes the two-space error. (In editing letters for “Dear Farhad,” my occasional tech-advice column, I’ve removed enough extra spaces to fill my forthcoming volume of melancholy epic poetry, The Emptiness Within.) The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I’ve received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces. Some of my best friends are irredeemable two spacers, too, and even my wife has been known to use an unnecessary extra space every now and then (though she points out that she does so only when writing to other two-spacers, just to make them happy).

What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space—but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space “rule.” Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper. When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. “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. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing. 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. Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type. 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.

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left. Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) 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. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). 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. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

Type professionals can get amusingly—if justifiably—overworked about spaces. “Forget about tolerating differences of opinion: typographically speaking, typing two spaces before the start of a new sentence is absolutely, unequivocally wrong,” Ilene Strizver, who runs a typographic consulting firm The Type Studio, once wrote. “When I see two spaces I shake my head and I go, Aye yay yay,” she told me. “I talk about ‘type crimes’ often, and in terms of what you can do wrong, this one deserves life imprisonment. It’s a pure sign of amateur typography.” “A space signals a pause,” says David Jury, the author of About Face: Reviving The Rules of Typography. “If you get a really big pause—a big hole—in the middle of a line, the reader pauses. And you don’t want people to pause all the time. You want the text to flow.” …

Wikipedia has a remarkably comprehensive and scholarly treatment of the topic; from the introduction:

Until the 20th century, publishing houses and printers in many countries used single, but enlarged, spaces between sentences. There were exceptions to this traditional spacing method—printers in some countries preferred single spacing. This was French spacing—a term synonymous with single space sentence spacing until the late 20th century. Double spacing, or placing two spaces between sentences (sometimes referred to as English spacing), came into widespread use with the introduction of the typewriter in the late 19th century. It was felt that with the monospaced font used by a typewriter, “a single word space … was not wide enough to create a sufficient space between sentences” and that extra space might help signal the end of a sentence. This caused a widespread change in practice. From the late 19th century, printers were told to ignore their typesetting manuals in favor of typewriter spacing; Monotype and Linotype operators used double sentence spacing[11] and this was widely taught in typing classes.

With the introduction of proportional fonts in computers, double sentence spacing became obsolete, according to many experts. These proportional fonts now assign appropriate horizontal space to each character (including punctuation marks), and can modify kerning values to adjust spaces following terminal punctuation, so there is less need to manually increase spacing between sentences. From around 1950, single sentence spacing became standard in books, magazines and newspapers. Regardless, many still believe that double spaces are correct. The debate continues, notably on the World Wide Web—as many people use search engines to try to find what is correct. Many people prefer double sentence spacing for informal use because that was how they were taught to type. There is a debate on which convention is more legible, and the few recent direct studies have produced inconclusive results.

Most modern literature on typography says that double spacing is wrong, but some non-typographical sources indicate that it could be used on a typewriter or with a monospaced font. The majority of style guides opt for a single space after terminal punctuation for final and published work, with a few permitting double spacing in draft manuscripts and for specific circumstances based on personal preference. Grammar and design guides, including Web design guides, provide similar guidance.

The encyclopedia also has an entire article titled Sentence spacing in language and style guides; excerpts:

Sentence spacing guidance is provided in many language and style guides. The majority of style guides that use a Latin-derived alphabet as a language base prescribe or recommend the use of a single space after the concluding punctuation of a sentence in final written works and publications. Some style guides permit the use of a double space in certain circumstances if preferred by the writer. No known U.S. or international style guide (for languages using a Latin-derived alphabet) currently prescribes the use of a double space after terminal punctuation in final or published work. …

Historical style guides before the 19th century typically indicated that single, but slightly wider, spaces were to be used between sentences. Standard word spaces were about one-third of an em space, but sentences were to be divided by a full em-space. With the arrival of the typewriter in the late 19th century, style guides for writers began diverging from printer’s manuals, indicating that writers should double-space between sentences. This held for most of the 20th century until the computer began replacing the typewriter as the primary means of creating text. In the 1990s, style guides reverted to recommending a single-space between sentences. However, instead of a slightly larger sentence space, style guides simply indicated a standard word space. This is now the convention for writers and publishers. …

International style guides

The European Union’s Interinstitutional Style Guide indicates that single sentence spacing is to be used in all European Union publications, encompassing 23 languages. For the English language, the European Commission’s English Style Guide states that sentences are always single-spaced. The Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers (2007), first published in 1966 by the Commonwealth Government Printing Office of Australia, stipulates that only one space is used after “sentence-closing punctuation”, and that “Programs for word processing and desktop publishing offer more sophisticated, variable spacing, so this practice of double spacing is now avoided because it can create distracting gaps on a page.”

National languages not covered by an authoritative language academy typically have multiple style guides—which may not all discuss sentence spacing. This is the case in the United Kingdom. However, the Oxford Style Manual (2003) and the Modern Humanities Research Association’s MHRA Style Guide (2002), state that only single spacing should be used. In Canada, both the English and French language sections of the Canadian Style, A Guide to Writing and Editing (1997), prescribe single sentence spacing. In the United States, many style guides—such as The Chicago Manual of Style (2003)—allow only single sentence spacing. A comprehensive style guide for general and academic use in Italy, Il Nuovo Manuale di Stile (2009), does not address sentence spacing, but the Guida di Stile Italiano (2010), the official guide for Microsoft translation, tells users to use single sentence spacing “instead of the double spacing used in the United States”.

U.S. government style guides

The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) was authorized by an act of Congress to “determine the form and style of Government Printing”. By 1984, the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual had transitioned to directing single sentence spacing. The 2000 and 2008 editions of the Government Printing Office’s (GPO) Style Manual are unequivocal in their guidance regarding this convention: “A single justified word space will be used between sentences. This applies to all types of composition.” The last known official United States government document to specifically prescribe double spaces after concluding punctuation was a 1959 government style guide. It indicated that sentences should use the em space evenly when typeset, defining a double-space as a synonym for an em space.

General and academic style guides

The 2003 edition of the Oxford Style Manual combined the Oxford Guide to Style (first published as Hart’s Rules in 1893) and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (“defines the language of the entire English-speaking world, from North America to South Africa, from Australia and New Zealand to the Caribbean”). It states, “In text, use only a single word space after all sentence punctuation.”

The Chicago Manual of Style is a comprehensive and widely used style manual for American English writing, and has been called the “standard of the book publishing industry”. The 16th edition, published in 2010, states, “Like most publishers, Chicago advises leaving a single character space, not two spaces, between sentences … and this recommendation applies to both the manuscript and the published work.” Chicago provides further guidance as follows:

Punctuation and space—one space or two? In typeset matter, one space, not two should be used between two sentences—whether the first ends in a period, a question mark, an exclamation point, or a closing quotation mark or parenthesis.

The Turabian Style, published as the Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, is widely used in academic writing. The 7th Edition, published in 2007, stipulates that the use of periods, question marks, and exclamation points as “terminal punctuation” to end a sentence should be followed by a single space.

Until the early 2000’s, the Modern Language Association (MLA) left room for its adherents to single or double sentence space. In 2008, it modified its position on sentence spacing to the following:

In an earlier era, writers using a typewriter commonly left two spaces after a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Publications in the United States today usually have the same spacing after concluding punctuation marks as between words on the same line. Since word processors make available the same fonts used by typesetters for printed works, many writers, influenced by the look of typeset publications, now leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark. In addition, some publishers’ guidelines for preparing a manuscript’s electronic files ask professional authors to type only the spaces that are to appear in print. Because it is increasingly common for manuscripts to be prepared with a single space after all concluding punctuation marks, this spacing is recommended and shown in the examples in this manual.

The article continues with citations and discussion of scientific, legal and professional style guides; for the sake of brevity, we will merely quote the discussion of legal style guides:

Legal style guides

In the United States, there are a variety of legal writing style guides available. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, The Bluebook is the “most widely used [legal] citation guide” in the United States. The 2006 version of this guide to legal citations does not directly address spacing after the terminal punctuation of a sentence, although it does provide actual citation examples from court documents—some of which are single-spaced and some of which are double sentence spaced. A key statement in this guide, which addresses possible preferential differences between courts that require document submissions, notes that “Many state and federal courts promulgate local citation rules, which take precedence over Bluebook rules in documents submitted to those courts.” Various other legal style guides provide non-committal positions on this topic, such as the 2006 version of the ALWD Citation Manual, which has been “widely adopted by law-school writing courses”. This guide provides limited coverage on punctuation, referring readers to other style manuals that prescribe single sentence spacing. The Guide to Legal Writing Style (2007) also does not directly address this topic.

Some legal style guides do provide guidance on sentence spacing, such as the 2009 edition of the AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, and the 2006 edition of The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style—both of which state that a single space follows terminal punctuation. The Redbook provides further details on the use of this convention: “The custom during the reign of the typewriter was to insert two spaces between sentences” due to the use by typewriters of monospaced fonts that are not effective at creating readable text. It indicates that users could continue the use of two spaces if using a typewriter “or the Courier font”, and espouses the advantages of widely available proportional fonts which are degraded by the use of two spaces after terminal punctuation. Of the legal style guides listed in this section, all use proportional fonts with a single space between sentences in their text.

[Further reading: here, here and here.]

The question has actually been debated by the Poskim for centuries; we have evidence of conflicting traditions from as early as the medieval period: the Austrians left no space at all between sentences, but the Poles were careful to do so (how much is not specified). Our chronicler, the author of the Halachic-Kabbalistic work ברוך שאמר, sides strongly with the latter:

הג”ה וכן כתב הרוקח שיש להניח מעט חלק בין כל פסוק ופסוק וכן שאר קבלת הקדמונים ואין להבין טעם אושטריך אפילו המומחים שאינם מניחים כלל שום ריוח בין פסוק לפסוק אך בני פולין נזהרים בכך ויישר חילם שמניחים ריוח בין הפסוק:1

Both sides are well represented among the Aharonim; Rema, Shach and Rav Eliyahu Shapiro advocate leaving ‘a little’ space, whereas Magen Avraham, Gaon, and (apparently) Rav Haim Benveniste disagree and maintain that there is no difference between inter-sentence and inter-word spacing:


ובין כל אות [של תפילין] כמלא חוט השערה כמו בספר תורה וכמו שיתבאר בטור יורה דעה גם צריך להניח מעט חלק בין פסוק לפסוק:2


[לכתחלה] אין להניח [בין הפסוקים של ספר תורה] אויר הרבה אבל מעט צריך להניח בין פסוק לפסוק וכמו שנתבאר באורח חיים סימן ל”ב סעיף ל”ב בהג”ה:3

Magen Avraham

[קאי על דברי הרמ”א] צ”ע דהוציא זה מהריב”ש סימן רפ”ו והוא לא כתב שם אלא שאם עשה כן לא פסל אבל לכתחלה אין להניח חלק כלל בין פסוק לפסוק (ספר הזכרונות כ”ה) וכן נראה לי עיקר דהא אמרינן פרק קמא דקידושין דאנן לא בקיאין בפסוקים וגם ארור הוי מה’ דברים שאין להם הכרע ולדידן הוי תחלת פסוק לכן נראה לי דאין להניח חלק כלל ועיין ביו”ד סוף סימן רע”ד בבית יוסף:4

Rav Haim Benveniste

כתב בעל המפה … ונראה שלמדו הרב ז”ל מתשובת הריב”ש ז”ל .. והוא תימא שהריב”ש ז”ל כתב שבדיעבד לא פסל אבל לא שיניח חלק לכתחלה ושוב נדפס ספר הזכרונות וכתבו בדף ט’ ע”ב שיש שתפסו על הרב ז”ל בזה:5

Rav Eliyahu Shapiro

מעט חלק בין פסוק לפסוק:

כתב כנסת הגדולה … וכן פסק מגן אברהם. וכן ראיתי בל”ח ז”ל לא ידעתי מנין לו זה. גם בהלכות ספר תורה סימן רע”ד לא כתב כן רמ”א אלא שאם הניח כך דכשירה ע”כ. ואני זכיתי לספר ברוך שאמר ומצאתי שכתב להדיא כדברי רמ”א ואין ספק שממנו לקחו הרמ”א. ומהלכות ספר תורה לא קשה מידי דשם קאמר שאם הניח אויר הרבה כל שלא הניח כשיעור פרשה כשר. אבל מעט וודאי צריך להניח בין פסוק לפסוק. כמו שכתב הש”ך שם.6


[קאי על דברי הרמ”א] דבריו תמוהים דבריב”ש שאל השואל אם יש לפוסלו אם הניח מעט חלק והשיב [דאין לפסול בכה”ג] … אבל לכתחלה ודאי אין להניח ועיין מגן אברהם:7

  1. ברוך שאמר (שקלאוו תקס”ד) עמוד יב. – קשר []
  2. הגהת רמ”א שלחן ערוך או”ח סימן ל”ב סעיף ל”ב []
  3. שפתי כהן יו”ד סוף סימן רע”ד ס”ק ו []
  4. מגן אברהם שם ס”ק מ”ה, ועיין פרי מגדים (אשל אברהם) שם []
  5. כנסת הגדולה שם הגהות טור לדף כ”ט ע”א שטה ד’ – קשר []
  6. אליה רבה שם אות נ”א – קשר, הובא בקיצור בבאר היטב או”ח שם ס”ק מ”ט, ועיין משנה ברורה שם ס”ק קמ”ו וערוך השלחן שם סעיף נ”ו []
  7. ביאור הגר”א או”ח שם []