I thought we had settled this, but publicity around a recent communications experiment has reopened the debate on whether there should be one space or two after each sentence. According to various news reports, a trio of researchers at Skidmore College has “scientifically” proven that two spaces are better, which brings up two issues.
The first is that this study didn’t actually “prove” anything. The second is that even if their results were valid, the research would still be wrong.
Whatever you may have been told in high school, or wherever you learned to “type,” there is no more reason to put two spaces after each sentence than there is to send an urgent message by Western Union telegram. It’s outmoded and belongs to another age.
We Don't Use Typewriters Anymore
The rule originated when typewriters were the norm for business communication and for typing manuscripts in newsrooms and other publishing enclaves. On typewriters, most of which used a typeface similar to the modern font, Courier, spaced every letter evenly. And if the upper case letter at the beginning, or period at the end of each sentence wasn’t enough of a clue, adding an extra space between sentences helped to clarify where one sentence ended and the next began.
That made some sense in the days when copy was written on typewriters and typesetting was done manually, but desktop publishing and computer software have entirely changed the game.
In today’s world, an extra space between sentences is just that—an extra space. There is no reason for it to be there. Computer fonts are designed with auto spacing, known as kerning to typographers, so that everything appears balanced and spread evenly. Unless of course someone starts adding extra spaces between sentences.
Style Dictates from Psychologists
The current kerfuffle began when the latest edition of the American Psychological Association Manual revised its stance and announced that rather than one space, two spaces should now follow the punctuation at the end of a sentence.
Realizing that “there has been no empirical support for either convention,” a trio of researchers at Skidmore College decided to conduct a study. So far, so good.
Their ultimate conclusion: “Although comprehension was not affected by punctuation spacing, the eye movement record suggested that initial processing of the text was facilitated when periods were followed by two spaces, supporting the change made to the APA Manual.”
That earth-shattering news apparently makes for a great headline and the story got tremendous coverage on traditional, modern, and social media. It also raised several questions, including ones about how critical we are when we consume media.
First of all, I don’t understand why anyone other than members of the American Psychological Association should care what their style guide dictates. The more important issue is that so many people (almost all two-spacers) have misguidedly decided to portray this single experiment as solving an important question once and for all.
The study at Skidmore involved only students, 39 of whom were two-spacers and 21 one-spacers. In terms of valid scientific research, 60 students is not a legitimate sample from which to extrapolate such a momentous conclusion. What makes it even worse is that the font they chose—Courier New—is rarely used in business and has a fixed-width, making the insertion of extra space even more noticeable.
It Doesn't Help and Is Still Wrong
And the supposed improvement in reading speed was only 3%, which means that something that might have taken an hour to read would now take just over 58 minutes. Even if the research is valid, so what? What are you realistically going to do with that 1.8 minutes you’ve saved every hour?
The next time you sit down at your keyboard, remember, Skidmore researchers aside, there’s no legitimate reason to add extra space. It’s a bad habit and unless you’re still using an IBM Selectric (which was my favorite typewriter ever, especially the self-correcting ones) to prepare copy for your typesetter, you should stop doing it. Immediately.
Now, let’s not have this discussion again.