One Space or Two? Does It Really Matter?

As a pragmatist, I shake my head at the ongoing “debate” over how many spaces to use after terminal (or “sentence”) punctuation. Those of us who learned typing (as on a typewriter) as opposed to word processing generally learned to press the space bar twice after a period or a colon. Times change, and spacing changes too. These days, it’s generally accepted that one space is all you need. I’m continually amazed at the anguish evinced by those who cling to the old ways, as if being asked to use only one space were akin to being asked to cut off their dominant hand.

Really? Is it all that big a deal?

I don’t see it. I honestly don’t. Use two spaces if that’s what you want to do. Hell, use five if it makes you happy. The only time you’ll run into trouble is if and when your work goes to an editor to be prepped for publication. You’ll need to be ready for that editor to remove all the extra spaces, because three of the four most commonly used style guides in the US—the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association style guide, and the Associated Press style guide—all specify one space following terminal punctuation. (The fourth major guide, that of the American Psychological Association, specifies two spaces. However, I will point out that for most writers looking to publish fiction or nonfiction, that won’t be the style guide in play.) If that editor is working for a publishing house, I feel secure in stating that there won’t be any negotiating on this point.

“But Karen, I’m an indie author and I’m self-publishing!” Hooray for you. If you contract with an editor (as I hope you will), you need to be prepared for that editor to ask (or perhaps tell) you what style guide will be used. It’s in an editor’s sphere of influence, as it were. And perhaps you and that editor can agree that your personal “house style” will be two spaces after terminal punctuation. Bully for you both.

The history of spacing is interesting, to be sure. Movable type. Typewriters. Word processors. Fixed-space fonts versus variable-width ones. That’s all interesting, yes. Ultimately, however, for my job as a copyeditor, none of it matters. The why’s don’t matter. The how’s don’t matter. What matters is what the style guide says is to be done. I don’t get paid to agree with the decision. I get paid to make the text fall into line with the style guide. Whether I’d be amenable to the two-spaces question remains to be seen, and depends a lot on the author’s attitude. Someone who blusters in and demands that they be left or else is someone I’d prefer not to deal with, thanks. I prefer the look of one space in this day of variable-width fonts and automatic kerning and all those other wonderful technological advancements, and apparently I’m far from being in the minority on that. I happen to have three pretty important authorities on my side. Bully for me. All it means is that I agree with what those authorities have to say on the matter, and that I will cite them whenever someone asks the oft-repeated question.

There’s no good reason for it, nor is there a good reason against it. It’s not a moral decision. It’s a stylistic one, and one that is addressed in every major style guide in use today. It’s about appearance on the page or the screen, not about personal preference or how you were taught in 1980. It’s about guidelines (not rules, notice—guidelines). There is no rule. There are, however, multiple guidelines, most of which are in agreement.

So you all go ahead and debate this point however you like. I know what my job is, and I know how to do it well. If that makes me someone you don’t want to work with, that’s perfectly all right with me. I’m not here to make your life miserable; I’m here to whip your writing into shape, make sure it’s grammatically and syntactically correct in whatever way is required by the style and the intended audience, and see that the final product adheres to an accepted style guide (whichever one we agree to use), perhaps with a few minor “house style” exceptions. That’s what I’m paid to do.

And I might even let you have your two spaces—if you comport yourself like the professional you want to be.

2 thoughts on “One Space or Two? Does It Really Matter?

  1. I’ve no problem with the style guide change. It’s another one of those electronic-age-driven changes. As you said, the whys and wherefores don’t matter. However, it does take time to unlearn the body memory of typing on a typewriter. I’ve done it, but sometimes a double space slips in there. It’s one of the reason I turn the markers on in my word processing program. I can see the spaces that way. I still don’t catch all of them, but I also don’t bite the editor’s head off. 😉


  2. What Jeff said. But for stuff (especially short pieces) I do for myself, it is not unusual to go back and insert extra spaces after periods, because it just looks better (I grew up with it). On the other hand, for the most part, I was really glad to find out that this had changed and I didn’t have to do it it anymore. And I seldom do.


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