Foes of Formatting Want Us to Take
Double-Spaced Step Backward
For months on end, I’ve been watching in shock as seemingly impossible things keep happening: The most innovative nation on the globe elected an actual imbecile. Hooded Klansmen marched proudly in our streets. Regulations aimed at slowing our environmental doom were casually reversed.
Now researchers are making a scientific case for using two spaces between sentences in typed communication, instead of one. Two profligate, puffy spaces. Instead of just the sensible single space.
And this, my friends, is where my head explodes. This is where I say, By god, you animals, no more. No more will I stand idly by and watch barbarous, maniac-manned bulldozers ram at the pillars of our human progress. Feh, ye foes of formatting! We have come too far from the clomping Smith Corona Sterling and the humming, ham-fisted IBM Selectric dumping unsightly utilitarian gaps in the midst of our otherwise pretty paragraphs, to ever — nay, ever! — go back.
And here, I know, is where readers will line up on either side of this factious debate. The argument over whether to insert one or two spaces after a period has raged for ages between traditionalists and modernists — or as I see it, between those who are wrong and those who know better.
To settle the score, researchers from Skidmore College conducted a study: They used eye-tracking equipment to watch 60 test subjects read text in both formats. The results showed that two spaces made it easier for some subjects to read the material — which surely thrilled academics, who have long cleaved to the old-fashioned double-space rule still suggested by APA format. It’s what we were all taught in school, after all. But anyone who’s had written work published commercially in the last oh, 20 yearswouldn’t type two spaces after a period any sooner than they would dab Wite-Out on their computer screen. It strains past unnecessary to border on asinine.
The two-space rule was created to allow more air between whole sentences than between individual words back when each character on a typewriter took up an equal amount of space; an mwas allowed as much width as an i on the page, for example. But fonts created for computers are “smarter.” For example, a font’s “space” character is designed to look appropriate in context with the rest of its alphabet and can even be set to stretch a little bit wider when it falls after a period.
“This stuff is carefully constructed,” says my husband, a font designer who is even more deranged about this stuff than I am. “So then to just say, ‘Oh, let’s put two spaces here,’” … (at this point his voice trails off in fonty frustration, and he must calm himself) … “well, it disregards the crafting that goes into it.”
Actually, the Skidmore study disregarded that crafting, too. The paragraphs it gave subjects to read were in Courier New, a font specifically designed to mimic old typewriters — meaning letters and spaces are all equal width. Not only that, but it turns out the only subjects who found it easier to read the study’s double-spaced sentences were those who admitted that they still personally typed with two spaces between sentences. So who cares what they think anyway?
In fact, I’m choosing to take an entirely different and optimistic set of analyses from this study than the ones they foisted on us. Only a third of its participants identified as two-space typers, which I see as evidence that society is advancing:
(1) The majority of us are sophisticated thinkers who can keep ideas separate in our heads without requiring glaring visual signposts to buffer them.
(2) In an era when conservation is critical, our disinclination to squander spaces willy-nilly speaks well of our survival odds.
(3) Even on a crowded planet, our unwillingness to create buffers where there need be none portends, ultimately, to peaceful coexistence. Despite depressing news of late, we are not a world that insists on separating and dividing.
We are not stuck in the past. We are one people, and a people hell-bent … on one.
I rest my space case.