Daily Archives: January 14, 2011

Two spaces and authority

Something I have to tell people about every so often, and would probably have gotten around to doing a blog post on, is that the rule so many people learned about putting two spaces after a period was a rule invented for typewriters and never appropriate for proportional type, such as we use now on computers. However, Farhad Manjoo of Slate has just given such a nice explication/rant on the topic (even if a little too harsh at times) that all I really need to do here is link to it. Which I have just done.

But if you’ll look at the comments, you’ll see not everyone agrees with him. And their reasons for disagreeing with him are for the most part not based on rational argumentation focusing on the points he’s made. They’re generally in the line of “You’re wrong because you’re wrong,” “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong,” “Who cares?” and “That’s not what we were taught, so you’re wrong.”

The first two kinds of response – “You’re wrong because you’re wrong” and “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong” – are easily waved off. Circularity is obvious and juvenile, and popularity is not always a proper basis for correctness. (In typography, the design aims for maximum readability and minimum unbidden distraction, and double spacing defeats that when the type was designed to have proper kerning after a period. So it’s not like language usage, which in the long run is decided by mass opinion.)

The third, which is exemplified by the comment “You know what’s even more outdated than using double spaces at the end of a sentence? Typographers,” is the argument from and for ignorance. The truth, of course, is that typographers are not outdated; perhaps that commenter thinks that God or magic makes everything look pretty and readable on the page, and that all letter forms are sent straight down from heaven. But if there were no typographers, he and others would discover the true meaning of text looking like shit.

It’s the final category of comment, though, that touches on a point that comes up quite often when language professionals talk with their clients and other people who might think they know what they’re talking about but don’t really. An exemplary comment is “Hey jackass. Us two spacers didn’t invent this practice. It was taught to us somewhere, more than likely in a typing class. So despite your assurances, I assure you that it is correct.”

Oh! It was taught to you somewhere! Ohhhh. I see. So it must be right then! Because teachers are always right. And yet there are other commenters in the same thread who say they were taught not to use two spaces. So they were taught somewhere that double-spacing was wrong! So that makes them both right! But they can’t both be right! Oh noooooooes! Mai hed hurtz.

So I’ll say it, just to be clear: Just because you were taught it doesn’t mean it’s right.

And here’s an even more important fact: School teachers are not subject matter experts. They teach what is in the curriculum, which has been determined by school boards and politicians, and most of the time it’s right, and of course in order to teach it they need to know enough about it to teach it. Certainly most of what they will teach you is true (whether you remember it correctly is another matter). But they are not always right about everything.

And some of the things you are taught in school are not entirely right, either. Usually this is because you aren’t quite at a level to understand the matter exactly correctly; you will find this in university, too – linguistics students are constantly being told that what they learned in a previous-level course was actually a bit oversimplified. Sometimes the school curriculum hasn’t caught up with reality. In some places, due to politics, the curricula are impervious to established reality on some important points. But also, students are sometimes taught things that aren’t in the curriculum but that the teacher just happens to believe. This is how many mistaken beliefs about grammar have been spread. (See When an “error” isn’t about those.)

But let’s just get this right down clear and straight: you probably know that your high school biology teacher knows less about the human body than a surgeon does. You may know that your high school physics teacher knows less about physics than one of the physics professors at MIT, Cal Tech, or Stanford, and less about engineering than a professional engineer who builds bridges for a living. So why do so many people believe that what their high school English teacher taught them about grammar and writing is the highest, most expert level of fact, handed down as though from God? Here, I’ll put it in bold so people can see it when skimming: Your high school English teacher was not an English language expert. He or she probably acted like one. But if you really want to understand English grammar and how it works and why it is the way it is, you’re going to need to get much farther than the rather basic understandings you came out of high school with.

Now, those who read this blog regularly will know I take a pragmatic approach, and generally dislike inflexible thou-shalt-not rules. So what’s with me saying thou shalt not use two spaces after a period? Well, it’s like this: you can use two spaces if you want to, but it’s probably not going to look as good. The type was not designed for it. If you submit it for publication, the designer will convert double spaces to single spaces pretty much immediately, and in fact will probably run that replacement without even looking to see if there are any to replace. So you’re making either a little extra work or not really any extra work at all for the designer, but you are wasting your energy with every unneeded space. Hey, it’s your energy…

But if you double-space, at least don’t insist that single-spacing after periods is wrong. It’s not. It’s actually preferable in proportional type. And it doesn’t matter that you learned it in school. The fact that you learned it in school doesn’t mean it’s right. You have a brain, right? I’m sure you’ve questioned other things you were taught. Well, question this too! Find out!