One space or two?

People of a certain age — myself included — learned to type on a manual typewriter, and our typing teachers taught us to put two spaces between sentences and after colons.

Nowadays, the rule is one space between sentences and after colons. This is true in Virginia Tech’s style guide as well as in all major style guides, including Associated Press, Chicago, MLA, and others.

Why the difference? It has to do with the fact that manual typewriters used monospacing — every letter, no matter its width, took up the same amount of horizontal space. Thus, an “l” or “i” was allotted the same amount of space as a wider letter, like an “m” or “w.” This caused more white space between some letters and made the space between sentences more difficult to locate. So, two spaces were inserted between sentences to make it easier for the reader to visually separate them.

The advent of word processors and computers brought with it proportional spacing, which means skinny letters take up less horizontal space, and the white space between all letters is the same. So, there is no longer a reason to include an extra space after periods and colons, and one space is the rule.

As the editor for college and Extension publications, I find that many writers still insert two (or more) spaces between sentences. If you’re tempted to use two spaces instead of one, keep in mind the words of Farhad Manjoo, Slate magazine’s technology columnist, who wrote that using two spaces “is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”*

Here’s a quick way to remove extra spaces without having to move from sentence to sentence, deleting spaces individually.

  1. Using Word, click on Edit in the menu bar, which opens a dropdown menu. Highlight Find with your cursor, then click on Replace.
  2. In the window labeled Search Document, hit the space bar twice.
  3. In the window labeled Replace With, hit the space bar once.
  4. The Matches area will show all the places in the text with two or more consecutive spaces. Click on Replace All to replace two spaces with one.
  5. If there are instances of three or more spaces in a row, continue clicking Replace All until no extra spaces remain.

And before sending off any text, check your spaces. Your editor will appreciate it!

* Manjoo’s column, “Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever Use Two Spaces After a Period,” is available online, if you’d like to read more.

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