How many spaces should you use after a period? Actually—and you might not like this if you came here for validation, or fuel for your righteous grammar fire—the number of spaces is entirely up to you! I know, unsatisfying. Despite a few persistent misconceptions about proper spacing after sentence-ending punctuation, the truth is that the decision is yours. You can see from this paragraph that I prefer only one space. I’m not here to tell you that a single space is definitely right, but I am going to try to convince you why it might be a better choice, depending on the ultimate arbiter of your writing: your audience.
The big myth
Let’s clear something up first. When you start debating or looking into sentence spacing conventions, it seems like someone inevitably brings up the typewriter explanation. It usually goes like this:
Long ago, when men were men and life was simpler, people spaced everything the same. They used one space after a sentence, and everyone was happy.
Then, in the early twentieth century, something changed. As typewriters became increasingly popular, a strange phenomenon took hold. You see, typewriters monospace every letter—a skinny little i is given the same amount of space as a big beefy m. So letter and word spacing in general was a little janksy, and the ends of sentences in particular could be hard to distinguish. You couldn’t tell where one sentence ended and another began! It was typographical madness. MADNESS, I tell you.
To solve this visual ambiguity and save society from impending chaos, we started using two spaces after sentence-ending punctuation. I know, ew. It was gross, but it was necessary.
But now, friends, NOW, our fancy computers take care of all this! Modern word processors automatically space our type proportionately, and modern typefaces also account for the differing widths of letters and space everything accordingly. Don’t you see?? We no longer need wider spaces between sentences! Computers rule, typewriters drool! You’re a fuddy-duddy stick-in-the-mud old-timey dinosaur and we’re all Steve Jobs, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Svedka robot girl, sleek slick future people! Aren’t you ASHAMED? Aren’t you just DEVASTATED by how ancient and dusty you are?? RIP your pride and relevance.
(You may think I’m exaggerating, but really, people can get kinda mean about this.)
Ah, the satisfaction of intellectual superiority. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Contrary to the popular typewriter narrative, and as this delightfully irate blog post extensively demonstrates, wider sentence spacing has been around since at least the 1700s. The Chicago Manual of Style itself used to put forth all sorts of different spacing recommendations depending on punctuation, capitalization, and more, though they recommend just a single space now. If you want more historical examples, rounded out by some all-caps text-yelling about typographical snootery, I recommend that blog post above. Suffice it to say, people have been giving a lot of thought to type-setting—spacing between letters, words, sentences, lines, paragraphs, and more—for a long time.
My takeaway from all this is that both sides have merit, and some history to back them up, too. Thus, the number of spaces you use after a sentence comes down to preference.
(My other takeaway is that type-setting was a freaking art that we should all respect. Be thankful that modern word processors and typefaces do most of this difficult work for us, and that we rarely have to worry about how letters and words are spaced, beyond simply hitting Align Left or Justify.)
The case for one space
So now we know that neither one space nor two spaces is definitively “correct.” Ambiguity. Great. (Welcome to copyediting!) What now?
This is 2017, and you can use two spaces between sentences if you damn well please. But there are three reasons why I think you might be better off using only one space.
1. Two spaces are no longer necessary.
Although this is pretty much explained above, I think it bears repeating. Outside of technical applications like coding, almost all typefaces today are proportionally spaced rather than monospaced. This means that the fonts we choose already take the different widths of letters into account, and each word, along with any attached punctuation mark, is easily distinguishable from the next. We can even hit Justify or Align Left, and Microsoft Word makes all the tiny spacing adjustments for us—condensing, expanding, sometimes condensing or expanding a little too much. Since this spacing is built into the typeface, our eyes can easily see when a period or other punctuation mark is attached to a word to mark the end of the sentence. We don’t need that extra, cautionary space to signal a separate sentence. Which leads to my next point …
2. Two spaces are more distracting.
You’re writing for a reason, and you want your readers to understand you. That’s why you’re probably not writing in the color yellow, or using cRazY CaPiTaLiZaTiOn, or MUABOUAJFG (Making Up A Bunch Of Unnecessary Abbreviations Just For Giggles). Why are those all bad ideas? Because of readability.
There is a bit of research on the effects of text justification on readability. Namely, justifying text can create awkwardly large gaps, or “rivers,” between words, which make readers pause before reading along. Such a pause, however brief, disrupts the act of reading and, in the end, impairs comprehension.
Okay, I know those studies are about text alignment, not sentence spacing. And before I go any further, I hereby state that I am not a scientist. However, I think the same general concept has implications for our spacing question.
My thinking goes like this. Two spaces break up the text too much, not allowing the reader’s eye to move smoothly along. Ideally, when reading, we want our eyes to flow over a passage of text, absorbing the information without dwelling on the individual words, or punctuation, or formatting, or any number of little distracting things. This is the same argument that also discourages the willy-nilly use of numerals (1, 2, 3), symbols (&, %, /, …), Too Many Capital Letters, and too much bolding, underlining, and italicizing in polished writing. These big brazen characters jam the eye up when it’s trying to read smoothly along. Your eye will jump from & to & or from … to …, and Will Grow Very Tired Very Quickly When Everything Is Capitalized (or bolded, underlined, or italicized), because we assume that capitalized words are important—after all, we were instructed that they’re usually fancy proper nouns.
Alas, as The Incredibles taught us, when everyone is special, no one is. When I read something with tons of capitalized or bolded words, I get fatigued assigning importance to every idea. And when I see writing that uses two spaces after each sentence, all I see are giant gaps in the text and sad little islands of isolated information. Instead of reading from one sentence to the next, absorbing the information without pausing to ponder punctuation, I’m taken out of the moment and am made super aware of the writer’s work of writing rather than the content of their message.
Alright, that might be slightly hyperbolic. But it does become more relevant when writing for the web. If your piece is getting published somewhere online, a significant portion of readers will likely view it on their mobile phones or tablets. Most websites and apps use responsive design, meaning your text will be fitted to a narrower column:
Any gaps in the text will take up a larger portion of these shorter lines, and will be more noticeable by comparison.
Basically, you don’t want to remind your reader that they’re reading. You want them to just read.
Note: I do not know if using two spaces between sentences makes it easier for people with dyslexia to read a passage. Since using fonts like Comic Sans and bulleted lists instead of long paragraphs improve readability for people with dyslexia, it’s possible that two or more spaces between sentences also do. If that’s true, put a point in the double-space column for accessibility.
3. Your readers are totally judging you.
Lastly, I know we’re all out of middle school and don’t want to care about what others think of us, but, sadly, that’s not always a good real-world plan. Whether you’re writing a proposal to win a new client, writing your cover letter to win a new job, or writing content to win new online followers, in the age of the internet, it pays to look modern and intentional.
Every piece of writing or publication has its intended audience, and if you want your message to sink in, you should always write and edit with your audience in mind. If you’re writing for the National Association of Double Spacers, by all means, keep the double space. But if you’re writing for the general public, who are used to reading journalism that follows AP style or books that follow modern publishing guidelines, your audience is already used to reading plenty of single-spaced writing without a second thought.
This plays into a larger theme in editing: the changing nature of language. Anyone who holds on too dearly to a writing convention of the past is in for some disappointment, because English is a language built on change and irregularity, and it continues to change all the time.
Appearing authoritative and knowledgeable to your readers requires balance between traditional writing rules and the most up-to-date spellings and widely accepted usages. Take technology words, for instance, which are constantly becoming out of date: “E-mail” has morphed into “email,” “Web site” into “website,” “smart phone” or “smart-phone” into “smartphone.” When I read something that uses an outdated term, I make a judgement call, consciously or subconsciously, and assume that writer is kinda stuck in their ways, or at least not very hip to life in 2017. And when your business or blog or personal writing wants to project authority and expertise in the age of information, you better sound smart, deliberate, and up to date.
A number of the editorial decisions I make for my clients’ writing are ones I don’t necessarily agree with. However, I know that not writing the piece that way means someone who does agree with a certain rule could read it and think, “Oh, they didn’t do XYZ, they must be kinda stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t hire them/buy their product/listen to their advice.” Not ideal, amirite.
In conclusion, who knows.
So there you have it: no real decree preventing you from using two spaces between sentences, but three (I hope) compelling reasons why it might serve you better to use only one. Reason 1 is about saving time, since modern word processors and typefaces already do the work for you. Go master that accordion solo, Ms. Free Time. Reason 2 is about improving readability, making it easier for your audience to absorb your message without minute interruptions in the reading process. And reason 3 is about giving your reader the benefit of the “modern vs. out of date” doubt, making them feel smart and stylish.
Whatever spacing you choose, the most important thing you can do is to be consistent. You have my respect if you stick to your guns and purposefully plop that second space after each sentence, but if you’re just throwing in one space here, two spaces there, three (gasp!) spaces wherever, well, that just looks a little careless. And I’d rather read your writing and take your message to heart than get distracted or tricked into thinking you don’t care.
A parting tip: Use the Search, Find, or Find and Replace function in whatever program you’re using to search for punctuation marks, double spaces, and so on, so you can double-check that all your post-sentence spacing is the same. Happy writing!