A tiny typographic tantrum

iStock photo

An item in the Washington Post yesterday caught my attention … and annoyed me on several counts. It’s a discussion of single spacing vs. double spacing at the end of a sentence. All the emphasis seems to be on readability, and a recent study was discussed. The study concluded that two spaces made paragraphs slightly easier to read.

However, for reasons I’m not sure were valid, the paragraphs used in the eye-tracking study were set in Courier New, a monospaced font usually seen only on typewriters and generally considered harder to read than proportional type.

The Post article is an interesting read, citing and demonstrating all kinds of reasons for both single and double spaces. But it fails to mention the primary reason for using the single space in computer-set type: If double spaces are used and a line break falls between the two spaces, the result will be a single-space indent at the beginning of the next line. The left margin will then be ragged, unattractive, and harder to read.

Those of us who learned to type on typewriters were taught to insert double spaces at the ends of sentences. And it did improve readability of the monospaced fonts used on typewriters. But the advent of computers changed that.

Another problem was consistency. Publications like to be consistent throughout and when manuscripts from multiple sources were prepared for publication, someone had to make sure the end product consistently used either single or double spaces after sentences. It was a tedious, manual chore for someone. When word processing software was introduced, it was fast and easy to run a search-and-replace macro that found all the double spaces and replaced them with single spaces. Trying to do the opposite would have resulted in double spaces after every word. Even if the search were limited to spaces preceded by periods, the result would be double spaces after sentences and any abbreviations or other periods that might have been used. (Computers are very literal.)

Thus, single spacing after sentences became the norm. These days, as some Post commenters noted, editing algorithms can automatically change all double spaces to single spaces, just as they can correct misspellings, etc. No special macros required

But wait. There’s more. I’ve yet another complaint about the Post article. It uses a nifty illustration (above) that displays the word “Print!” in old letterpress type. It nicely sets the mood for an article about type, typography, etc., and you’ve surely seen something similar many times. I love letterpress type and technology; it’s the stuff I actually worked with once upon a time. But I doubt many people notice what’s wrong with such pictures. They are backwards. Anything set in type must be set backwards so that the resulting printed page reads correctly. The individual characters in letterpress type are necessarily backwards, and I’ve no doubt that this was the original picture:

In closing, here’s a box of random letterpress characters. Note that all are backwards:

That’s it. End of tantrum. I’ll go to my room now.

16 thoughts on “A tiny typographic tantrum

  1. Interesting observations. Since I mastered (almost) the California case many moons ago, I’ve maintained some interest in matters typographical. Despite the virtues of single spaces after sentences in computerized work, I’m afraid I still hit the space key twice most of the time purely out of habit.

    1. It’s a habit that was drilled into us, and writers really don’t need to change. Computers can easily correct it before publication, if that is the objective.

      (By the way, your comment was held in moderation because you signed as “Anonymous.” Use a screen name and a valid email address or URL the next time, and it won’t happen again.)

  2. Double-spacing at the end of a sentence is second-nature to me. I could change that with some effort but it really doesn’t seem worth it. As for readability, what I prize most is the “reader mode” in the Safari browser. With one click the print enlarges and the ads disappear. Amazing! I’m surprised someone hasn’t suppressed it by now.

    1. I wasn’t aware Safari had that feature. Nice! I’ve been using Chrome for a long time. With an ad blocker. And can zoom in when I want something larger (don’t know if that’s a function of Chrome or the computer).

  3. I used to work with handset type too right before everything changed forever. I was a graphic artist beginning when everything was hand done in what my kids think was the dark ages. I doubt many others noticed the reversal of the type faces. I still double space at sentence end too. Not worth the trouble to me to change now. 🙂

    1. I started my career as a proofreader and copy editor and was one of those unlucky enough to have to impose consistency. Computers certainly made that job easier. Somewhere along the way I started typing with only single spaces, probably just so I wouldn’t have to change it later.

      I also used to not use line spaces between paragraphs and instead, indented each first line five spaces, as I was taught. With computers we’ve gone to line spaces with no indents. Fewer key strokes, and no worries about having to make all the indents the same size (another consistency problem I had to contend with). Once I got used to it, I thought it looked a lot neater and easier to read.

    1. I was such a terrible typist and avoided it so assiduously that I’m not sure how strong my double-space habit was. Nor do I recall exactly when I “unlearned” it. I just know that word processors and computers were godsends for me.

... and that's my two cents