Legal Writing: One or two spaces after a period?

 By Karin Ciano

Dolan Record Newswire
Few subjects arouse such irritation (on all sides) as the enduring question of how many spaces to put after a period at the end of a sentence. Some say two. Some say one. And the rest are headed off to freshen their drink or read a different column.
What is a space, really? It’s separation: the pause that lets us break letter strings into words, and word sequences into sentences. Spaces are part of writing. But no one cared about the precise size of spaces except publishers and typesetters, who, until the 1960s, favored wider spaces at the ends of sentences than between words.
Then things started to change. Gradually, as airlines did with seats, typesetters squeezed words closer together. Readers adapted. If you’ve read anything published in the last couple of decades, and could figure out where the sentences started and ended, you can read a one-space sentence break just fine. Nobody really needs a second space after a period for clarity or comprehension.
So why can’t everyone get over the double space already? The problem turns out to be not with reading, in my opinion, but with writing — or more accurately, typing.
Long, long ago, before tablets, laptops and desktops, lived the typewriter, mighty steel giant of the writing jungle. Heavy, loud, inky, complex to use and devilishly hard to correct, these hulking beasts deployed a suite of metal keys to produce letters on paper — and all of the keys were the same width (i.e., monospaced). Thus, to achieve the trendy wider space between sentences, typing teachers (!) instructed eager students to hit the space key twice after a period. These students grew up, bought computers, and double-spaced the heck out of their sentence-ends unto this day. I know, because I’m one of them.
Comes now the upstart generation, wagging its finger and opining that two spaces are “totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong,” in the words of Fahrad Manjoo, whose 2011 Slate post on the topic revived the debate for modern audiences. Matthew Butterick, author of Typography for Lawyers, calls it an “obsolete habit.” If I keep on double-spacing, I am told, I will appear lazy and ignorant and people won’t like me. Plus it’s inefficient and selfish, typing all those extra spaces so my poor editor has to take them out. Plus it just … looks … wrong (Butterick claims to be unsettled by the “rivers of white space” unleashed by double-spaced sentence ends).
Can these disparate views be harmonized? I’ll take a shot.
First, a word to the upstarts: the debate centers on typography. Perhaps for this reason, some style manuals (notably the Bluebook and the GPO Style Manual) and usage guides (notably Garner’s Modern American) avoid the subject. Double-spacing after a period, if crime it be, is a crime against aesthetics, not grammar or style.
Second, the authorities’ guidance is less emphatic than some might suggest. Yes, upstarts, the stats are on your side: most guides that take a position (the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Manual, the MLA Style Guide, Ken Adams’ Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, among others) favor one space. But it’s often qualified. The Chicago Manual and the MLA Style Guide require a single space — in published, typeset work. In hand-typed manuscripts, they don’t take so hard a line, perhaps recognizing that a lot of us old farts were taught to type it that way.
Third, hard as it may be to take extra spaces out of text (and it’s not, really – see below), there’s something harder: teaching yourself to type differently. I’ve been typing for about 35 years, my fingers do the two-space two-step without being asked, and — inefficient or not — I have a hard time training them to do otherwise with any accuracy or speed. Like QWERTY keyboards, another inefficient relic of the typewriter era, two-space sentence breaks may persist despite their inefficiency because that’s how millions of people have learned to type.
Speaking of those millions, now let’s caucus with my fellow two-spacers.
To the folks who, like me, learned it the “wrong” way, I say simply: the tide is turning. The aesthetic preference for wide open spaces has gone the way of the buffalo herds. In a world where our writing is judged by its appearance, there will likely come a point when a double space after a period looks about as attractive as Courier New font. Professional typesetters have single-spaced for decades. Undergraduates and law students are single-spacing as we speak, and (as we have seen) the major writing authorities support them.
Analog practices have to adapt to the digital age. We’re typing more than ever, on every kind of surface imaginable, while doing every kind of activity imaginable, and I think we’d all agree — the fewer keystrokes, the better. In short, two-spacers, resist the urge to deploy the typographical equivalent of the mastodon. Mourn if you must, but our reign is ending.
One parting thought. Since computers got us into this mess, it’s only fitting that they should get us out. If you’re an habitual two-space typist, use Word’s “find and replace” function to highlight instances of two spaces after a period “.__” Then ask it to replace with one space “._” It’ll actually do it for you. I just did, and it replaced 24 extra spaces in the text — my editor will be none the wiser. (Wait, did I write that down?)
May your autumn be sweet, and your sentence endings proportionally spaced.
Karin Ciano is owner of Karin Ciano Law PLLC and director of Twin Cities Custom Counsel PLLC. Contact her at karincianolaw


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