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If you’re here looking for the simple answer to this simple question, here goes:
That was easy, wasn’t it? But, since you probably asked that question because what you were taught before contradicts what you’re being taught now, let me clarify the ins and outs of this particular writing rule.
Trust Me: One Is the Standard
To begin, let’s look to the official rules. This comes from CMOS (i.e., the one style guide that rules them all):
Like most publishers, Chicago advises leaving a single character space, not two spaces, between sentences and after colons used within a sentence [...], and this recommendation applies to both the manuscript and the published work. (Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, section 2.9)
CMOS isn’t alone on this front, either. The Associated Press (AP) very clearly states the rule, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) acknowledges that most presses use one space.
Okay, okay … but why? And why did your teachers tell you to use two spaces?!
How It Used to Be
Remember, the very idea of “spacing” (in the sense we’re referring to it) originated, not with writing, but with typewriting. When you’re writing something by hand, there’s no such thing as uniform spacing—at least if your handwriting is as terrible as mine—so the real point is just to make it clear that the new sentence has started.
In the age of the typewriter, the standard was two spaces after the end of a sentence. Our dear friend Grammar Girl tells us that the reason for the double space is that most typewriter fonts are “monospaced,” meaning that each letter took up the same width on the page. It’s easy enough to see:
Now, you’ll notice that the period of the monospaced font is quite far out from the final letter of the sentence, at least when compared to the proortional period. Also, dry typewriter ribbons tended to make periods almost invisible. With these shortcomings noted, there was a very good reason to create the extra space: it ensured that the sentence’s conclusion was evident—without having to rely on the period’s placement or even visibility.
The tendency to add two spaces became mainstream in the typewriter’s era, so even after those monstrous writing machines went the way of the Zune, the “rule” of two spaces stayed the same. This was so standard that my two English professor parents taught it to me as a matter of literary law, and that was just less than two decades back. Over time, though, the issue of spacing has been hotly debated, and those debates concluded with the single-space option as the victor.
The Advantages of a Single Space
There are those who point to a single space as having many advantages. “It looks better,” they say. “It improves the sense of sentence flow,” they say. “It prevents readers from getting distracted by the purgatory of an extra blank area,” they say. “It cures cancer,” they say.
Who says all this? Well, passionate typographers, mostly. These are the sorts of people who are preoccupied with how just a couple millimeters of white space will make or break a page. For the rest of us, the real advantages of using a single space boil down to this:
- A single space has become the standard, so the second space can look like an error.
- Writing in HTML (and thus almost anywhere on the web) automatically removes your second space, which further reinforces the single space standard and makes your attempts at second-spacing useless.
- If you don’t use a single space, your editor will probably wind up doing a find-and-replace anyway. Your work will wind up with the solitary space, and your only added benefit is a frustrated editor.
That’s not to say a double space has no advantages. For one, it has an element of clarity in distinguishing the end of a sentence from an abbreviation. For example, “I’ll have a chat with K. Kesler, then, shall I?” may, on a skim, look like two sentences—at least if we’re accustomed to the standard of a single space at the end of a sentence. Further, the double space makes it clear a new sentence has started even if a word is not capitalized. While rare, cases of non-capitalization at the beginning of a sentence do exist. For example, “e.e. cummings” is never capitalized, nor is the “e” of “eBay.”
That said, the double space advantages are few and far between, and even those of us rushing through a read can typically tell when a sentence has ended, abbreviations and e.e. cummings notwithstanding. We might be able to lay the entire thing to rest and just switch over to one space, except …
The Rule Is Not Universal
The MLA has this to say about single spaces after a sentence:
[M]ost publishers’ guidelines for preparing electronic manuscripts ask authors to type only the spaces that are to appear in print.
[...] As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks unless an instructor or editor requests that you do otherwise.
So, according to MLA, you can use two spaces if you damn well please. AP and CMOS disagree. So do most publishers. But this remaining scrap of contested territory mixes blood with the old tradition of adding a second space, and the result is that students are taught different standards. The end of our current path is clear, though: The single space will become universal. You may as well start using it now.
Switching Over to a Single Space
I switched over to a single space toward the beginning of my freelance career, at the request of one of my major clients. I started obsessing over my second spaces, killing them with great displeasure—even with a sense of loss—as I wrote. For several weeks, I had to do a find and replace on every document I wrote because I always left a few extra spaces in.
It took me about a month to break the my second-space habit. It will probably take you about that long as well. I don’t have any grand tips or shortcuts for you: Just keep the standard in mind, delete the second space every time you notice yourself using it, and proof your completed documents to ensure that you have kept to the standard.
Good luck, and write on,
Rob D Young
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik
As an editor, the bulk of major problems I encounter are at the sentence level. Yes, sometimes the entire submission is off (doesn’t follow instructions, lacks direction, etc.), and sometimes the word choice or punctuation makes me sad inside, but most often it’s those infernal sentences.
And what, precisely, is the problem with these sentences? They never get to the damned point! And by “point” I mean both the core idea of the sentence and the actual period at the end. So, rather than ranting and raving about general rules, I’m going to walk you through a sentence workshop. Here’s our example:
When your old computer system is starting to see a suffering performance and you’ve saved up a sufficient amount of money to replace your old system then it’s a good idea to explore the possibility of creating a custom-built system for yourself, as it can be both more affordable and additionally provides a system that more effectively and fully meets your needs.
I know this may seem like an exaggeration of how muddled sentences get, but my editorial experience has shown me much worse.
Let’s break down this sentence. What is the real point? It can be summed up as “custom-built systems are better for your needs and they cost less.” The other points covered are “your old computer sucks” and “you have some money.” So, let’s start at the beginning.
When your old computer system is starting to see a suffering performance
What’s our actual subject? It’s an “old computer system” that’s “starting to see a suffering performance.” The point, however, is that the system isn’t really working anymore. So, what words can we eliminate to make this more clear? There are several options, but let’s go with this for now:
When your computer’s performance starts to suffer
Same meaning, only the second version is more concise. Moving on:
and you’ve saved up a sufficient amount of money to replace your old system
The point here is saying that you also have to save up enough money for a new system. We’ve got several words that are unnecessary. First, “sufficient amount of” is very weighty, and can be made more direct by just saying “enough.” We can also trim “saved up” to just “saved.”
Then we have “to replace your old system.” Do we need “your old system”? Didn’t we just talk about the old system a few words earlier? Let’s go for “it” instead.
and you’ve saved enough money to replace it
Okay, moving along:
then it’s a good idea to explore the possibility of creating a custom-built system for yourself,
First, we don’t actually need our “then.” It’s implied, and we can instead add a comma. This also clarifies that we’re getting to the core point of the sentence.
Our next point is that you should look into creating a custom system. What verbiage is unimportant for that? “Explore the possibility of creating,” is – what’s the word? – nauseating. Let’s trim that down to “look into creating.” (We could also do “consider creating,” but I don’t like how those words sound when paired.)
And finally, we have the new subject: “a custom-built system for yourself. ” If you’re creating it, and it’s replacing your old computer, I think we can safely assume that “for yourself” is implied. Our new fragment now reads:
, it’s a good idea to look into creating a custom-built system
as it can be both more affordable and additionally provides a system that more effectively and fully meets your needs.
First, the word “it” in this context is ambiguous (could refer to either the “idea” or “system” from above). We could say “system” or “computer” again (or find another synonym), but there’s another option: swap out “as it” with “which.” From there we can either keep the “can be” or switch for a stronger “are often” or “are generally.” Let’s go for “are often.” So we start our fragment with “which are often.”
Our next word is “both.” That doesn’t add much of anything, since it should be evident at a glance that we have two advantages here. So let’s cut that. While we’re at it, let’s remove “additionally,” which is redundant to the “both” and, again, is evident from the sentence’s nature.
Now let’s look at this second advantage of “providing a system that more effectively and fully meets your needs.” First, we really don’t need to reiterate that it’s the system doing this. Let’s go ahead and say “which” instead (it’s not perfect, but we’ll live). Next, is there a different between effectively meeting your needs and fully meeting your needs? I’m going to say “fully” covers it. So that trims us down to this:
which are often more affordable and which more fully meet your needs.
Are we done? Well, not really. We’ve hacked a lot, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. So now we go through the same process with our revised sentence. Here’s what our current sentence looks like:
When your computer’s performance starts to suffer and you’ve saved up enough money to replace it, it’s a good idea to look into creating a custom-built system, which are often more affordable and which more fully meet your needs.
It’s better. It’s shorter (39 as opposed to 62 words). It’s clearer. But we can do more.
First, let’s examine some of these points to see how necessary they really are. Is there a way we can set up our scene (getting a new computer) more efficiently? Let’s try this:
When you’re ready to replace your current computer
Might this work? Well, the real question to answer is, does it change the point? And honestly, no, it doesn’t. The idea of replacing a computer already implies that the old version needed replacing. Further, having saved up money for the system is implied in the act of purchasing.
Next, we have the idea of “it’s a good idea to look into creating a custom-build system.” Can’t we just say something like:
consider building a custom system
Yes, I think we can. And then we have the advantages of custom systems. What we really mean to say is it’s cheaper and better. So let’s just say that:
as they often cost less and will more fully meet your needs.
You can toy with the details, but the core point remains the same. Our new sentence looks like this:
When you’re ready to replace your current computer, consider building a custom system, as they often cost less and will more fully meet your needs.
Any other words we can trim out? I see “current” as unnecessary, and even the entire “you’re ready” sentiment as being implied in the action. So we could say, “When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system.”
When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system, as they often cost less and will more fully meet your needs.
Hmmm. We’re really close to strength here. I’m still not satisfied with the second half of the sentence, though. Part of the reason is that we’re working with two separate ideas: 1) Look into custom systems, 2) the reasons why. We can use some fancy punctuation to make it all into one beautiful thought.
When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system: they often cost less and will more effectively meet your needs.
You could, hypothetically, use a semicolon or dash there instead, but I like the colon in this case; the question implied by our first thought (the why? of look into custom systems) is quite evident. In any case, what we now have is a 20 word version of the 62 word train-wreck originally presented. The new version is far more clean, concise, and powerful.
We could also divide the sentence in two and accomplish the same effect.
When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system. Computers built from scratch often cost less while more fully meeting your needs.
It’s two words longer (22) in total, but it divides down to two sentences of nine and thirteen words. The two sentence version, in my not-so-humble opinion, is also more clear and effective. In either the colon or two sentence version, we’ve gotten the exact same point across in a third of the space – which for our readers means less time wasted and less need for potent headache medicine.