Roger That: A few words on writing
September 21, 2012
Roger Shirley is a former editor of the Nashville Business Journal and longtime editorial director here at MP&F. He reads just about everything we write. And we write a lot. This is Roger’s column about writing.
Take Two Spaces and Call Me in the Morning on Your Rotary Phone
By popular request, I’m going to jump right into a smoldering controversy (which is one that never fully erupts but just won’t go away). Yes, I’m talking about the issue that splits friends and families and co-workers across America … whether to use two spaces or one between sentences.
If you are still using a rotary phone to make collect, long-distance calls going through an operator, or turning the dial on your analog, black-and-white TV to change the channels, or sitting at the gas pumps waiting for some guy to come out and fill’er up and clean your windshield, it makes perfect sense for you to use two spaces after a period. This is especially true if you are still cranking out your prose on that old Underwood manual typewriter in the corner.
If, on the other hand, you are operating full-bore in the 21st century, there’s really no debate; there is only right and wrong, and those who insist on using two spaces after a period are simply wrong.
This actually shocks some people, who somehow think the two-space rule is part of the Laws of Grammar. It is not.
Simply put, the two-space style came about to accommodate the old manual typewriters, which used monospaced fonts. This means that each character was the same width, and that created spacing problems between sentences when, for example, the last word in a sentence ended in “r” and the first word of the next sentence started with “W.” Those letters appeared to run together, and so the two-space style was implemented as a fix. Note that I termed it a style, not a rule.
This style edict was passed down from high school typing teachers to students, who grew up to pass it down to their children – and so on.
Fortunately, for a variety of reasons, the technology changed. In fact, spacing was not an issue with some of the later-generation electric typewriters, and for sure it’s not an issue with today’s computer word programs.
Putting two spaces between sentences serves absolutely no purpose today, and evolution has taught us that things that serve no purpose generally go away, which is why homo sapiens don’t have tails. (I cannot explain why Google Plus still exists, however.)
Some people will remain unconvinced about this. They will cling to their double-spacing after periods with intellectual and moral certainty. And they have the right to do that, I suppose, just as they have a right to fly an American flag with 48 stars or listen to Black Sabbath on an eight-track tape player while cruising down the road in their 1968 Rambler.
Footnote: The only time you should ever use the double-space style is when the person paying you to do the writing insists on it. In that case, two wrongs make a right.