Meta-Contrarian Typography

Have you heard of meta-contrarians? The idea is that in many different areas, there’s a boring, old-fashioned, “common-sense” position. And a popular contrarian rejection of that position. And then a meta-contrarian rejection-of-that-rejection—a rejection that can end up looking a lot like the original position.

The theory is that some people will be strongly drawn to the meta-contrarian position, as a way of countersignalling.FN 1 I don’t know how true this is in general, but it’s an accurate description of me—I feel a strong urge towards meta-contrarianism. Whenever there’s a dominant contrarian position, I feel powerfully drawn to the meta-contrarian position on the other side.

And thus, I have meta-contrarian tendencies in typography.

I. A Typographic Typology

Typography provides fertile soil for meta-contrarianism, because it has so many orthodox contrarian positions. That is, there are many, many common “mistakes” (using hyphens instead of dashes, using the default font, use of too little whitespace, and on and on). This creates an opportunity for contrarians to rush in and correct those errors—which, in turn, presents an opportunity for meta-contrarians to show up and challenge the contrarian orthodoxy.

And, heretic that I am, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

So, what contrarian dogma do I intend to challenge?

Nothing other than the claim that periods should be followed by one space, not two. xckd. Original alt-text: 'The monospaced-typewriter-font story is a COMPLETE FABRICATION!  WAKE UP, SHEEPLE' 'It doesn't matter! Studies support single spaces!' 'Those results weren't statistically significant!' 'Fine, you win. I'm using double spaces right now!' 'Are not!  We can all hear your stupid whitespace.'

First, I guess I should establish that—even though many, many people use two spaces after a period—the dominant contrarian position is to tell those people they’re idiots and using one space is the only legitimate way to write. So, fine, have a list of links saying so:

The first link makes the contrarian case most explicitly. First, it acknowledges that two spacing is common:

People who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste. You’d expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you’d be wrong; every third email I get from readers includes the two-space error. (In editing letters for “Dear Farhad,” my occasional tech-advice column, I’ve removed enough extra spaces to fill my forthcoming volume of melancholy epic poetry, The Emptiness Within.) The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I’ve received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces. … Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces.

And despite—because of?—the frequency with which people use two spaces, the contrarian has no hesitation in proclaiming that “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.” This is a situation badly in need of some meta-contrarian defense.

II. The Arguments I Reject—And Why They’re Wrong

What’s the argument for use of a single space? Although the details differ, one-spacers generally offer the following three justifications:

  • History and Contemporary Practice: For at least the past hundred years, the nearly uniform practice of professional typographers has been to use a single word space between sentences.
  • Historical Accident: The only reason anyone started using two spaces is because of a historical accident having to do with typewriters and their use of monospaced font.
  • Appeal to Authority: Style manuals all mandate the use of a single space after sentences.

The first two of these arguments, however, are just flatly wrong. Let’s take them in order.

First, was it the case that, before the typewriter, people used a single word space between sentences? Not at all

Almost everything printed in English from the late 1500s until around 1950 used more space between sentences than between words in a sentence. This wasn’t some haphazard practice, it was very well-defined: every typography manual I’ve ever read up until the invention of the Linotype that describes sentence spacing says to use an em quad … [which] is about three times as large as the spaces used between words in that era.

That same source provides numerous examples to back up it’s claim. Here are just a couple:

From The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, printed in 1869.
From The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, printed in 1869.

Modern Printing volume 2, John Southward, 1915
Modern Printing volume 2, John Southward, 1915

Another historian of typography is even more explicit:

Typographers seem eager to dismiss wider spaces as some sort of fad, either something ugly that originated with typewriters, or some sort of Victorian excess that lasted for a few brief decades and quickly petered out. But this is simply not the case. As we will explore presently, the large space following a period was an established convention for English-language publishers (and many others in Europe) in the 1700s, if not before, and it did not truly begin to fade completely until around 1950.

While the modern convention is the single space, it is no less arbitrary than any other, and if you believe that larger spaces after periods look better in some situation, you should feel confident that your choice is supported by hundreds of years of good typographical practice.

A. Enter the typewriter, stage left

And how does the typewriter fit into this history? Well, as a first obvious point: if the pre-typewriter practice was for wide spacing, it cannot be the case that the typewriter is responsible for double-spacing habit in the simplistic way some people suggest. Instead, it was a different technological change that pushed small sentence spacing into popularity: Linotype

Before the advent of Monotype and Linotype, hand composition was a complex task that required a real craftsman to solve spacing issues from line to line. But the new machines made the process much faster and easier, again reducing cost of production.

Along the way, however, it also reduced the expertise required to set the type. Operators could punch in the letters very quickly, and worrying about different width spaces required time and training to pay closer attention to syntax. Furthermore, when a line needed to be expanded or compressed, it was easier to simply expand or reduce all spaces in a line, rather than to deal with the aesthetics of how to handle the various width spaces (which had complex rules that can be found in many of the manuals cited above).

B. Authority is the last refuge of a scoundrel

Without those historical arguments, all that advocates of single-spacing have to fall back on is the appeal to authority. And it’s true: at least since the 80s, the vast majority of professional style guides have recommended using a single space after sentences. But I’d have to turn in my meta-contrarian card if I were dissuaded by something as trivial as expert opinion.

For a long time, though, I mostly ended here. I thought that the reasons one-spacer zealots advocated were mostly bunk, but that it was a silly aesthetic preference—that we could all agree to disagree. But, recently, I’ve put some more thought into it (and done some more research). I now have a stronger position.

III. Not Only Are They Not Right, They’re Wrong!

I now believe that double-spacing after sentences is the objectively superior way to write. This is a strong claim (though you’ll see in a bit that it’s not quite as ambitious as it might look). But I think I have the arguments to back them up. My arguments fall into three categories: Clarity/skimmability, digital communication, and customizability.

A. Clarity and skimmability

The humble period is an overworked piece of punctuation. It can end a sentence. It can be part of an abbreviation (“Mr. Smith”). It is frequently used in place of an ellipses (“. . .” instead of “…”). It can be a decimal point (“3.14”). For a simple dot, it wears a lot of hats.

Having an extra space after a sentence helps clarify that the period in question really did end a sentence, rather than play one of the many other roles a period might play. We can come up with contrived examples where a sentence followed by a single space is literally ambiguous. For example, consider this statement: “Who wrote the blog? Tom and I. Taylor helped also.” Does that statement refer to a blog written by the Tom and the speaker, with assistance from Taylor? Or to a blog written by Tom with help from Ignatius Taylor? Without the pattern of double-spacing after sentences, it’s totally unclear.

Ok, ok, I admit that’s pretty extreme. How often will something like that actually come up? Probably never.

But a more modest form of that does come up. There are many times when a sentence isn’t literally ambiguous, but the lack of clear sentence termination still causes a stumble. Take this for a spin: “They went to the U.S. Army regulations require a background check.”

That’s two perfectly grammatical sentences. And after close reading, the structure isn’t ambiguous at all. But if you’re anything like me, you may have stumbled a bit, trying to read it as a single sentence before realizing that didn’t work and backtracking. Throwing that type of curve ball at readers is never a good idea. And, sure, you could rewrite the sentence to avoid the issue, but shouldn’t our typography serve our meaning, rather than forcing us to change our wording? If we’ve reached the point of changing our words because our typography doesn’t indicate where our sentences end—well, something has gone off the rails.

And that’s only the places where single spacing creates confusion. There are many, many more areas where it makes it much harder to skim through a sentence. With wider sentence spacing, the reader can easily tell where the sentences end, and can jump ahead if they want to. With single-spacing, they can do the same thing by scanning for periods (or other terminal punctuation), but that’s harder because of the period’s many hats. This is especially true in two areas near and dear to my heart: computer coding and legal writing.

B. Computer programmers, listen up!

Consider this paragraph describing the class selector in CSS.

You can apply a style to an entire class or to specific elements that have that class. So, if you’ve created the “intro” and “body” classes, you could apply a style to all elements with the relevant class with .intro or .body or just to paragraph elements with p.intro or p.body. This lets you apply different styles to elements with the same class (for example, make h1.intro in a larger font than p.intro).

This has got a lot of periods that don’t end sentences! And skimming it is pretty hard without extra sentence spacing. (And skimming in writing about code can be especially hard because capital letters don’t reliably signal the beginning of a sentence—they’re often related to a certain even-toed ungulate).

Indeed, many coding style guides (including Google’s) expressly include a requirement for using two spaces to make skimming easier—they require the programer to set off comments with two spaces rather than just one. Google’s C++, Python, and R style guides all require two spaces before a comment. Admittedly, spaces before a comment are not exactly the same thing as spaces between sentences—but the purpose of allowing for easier skimming is the same.

The official Python style guide is even clearer about this connection by explicitly requiring programmers to “use two spaces after a sentence-ending period” inside their comments. Again, the goal is easier skimmability.

C. The bottom line for lawyers

Legal writing is even worse. Most legal writing contains inline citations, which might look something like this: “Great W. United Corp. v. Kidwell, 577 F.2d 1256, 1257 (5th Cir. 1978), rev’d sub nom. Leroy v. Great W. United Corp., 443 U.S. 173 (1979).”FN 2 That single sentence has a full dozen periods. If the only way you have to skim to the end of the sentence is looking for a period—well, good luck and godspeed.

What’s more, that’s exactly the sort of sentence you’ll want to skim through. Sure, sometimes a legal citation is absolutely key—the whole issue might hinge on the cited case. Far, far more often, though, a case will be cited for a proposition of law that is important but that isn’t really in dispute.

For example, literally every summary judgment brief will cite to some case to establish that “the court should read all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” You have to cite to that, and the brief would be wrong if you didn’t. At the same time, the judge reading the brief is absolutely guaranteed to be perfectly well aware of that legal standard.

The judge isn’t going to be closely reading your citation for that claim; they’re going to want to easily skim right past that citation citation sentence—and the use of wider sentence spacing makes that much easier. And anything you can do to ease the judge’s task as a reader is to your benefit.

For that reason, wide sentence spacing is fairly common in litigation writing that uses inline citations. Some mistakenly attribute this to a certain fondness for tradition and the way things have always been done. While that might be a part of the explanation, wide sentence spacing is actually a perfect fit for the legal citation style, and the demands of high skimmability.

IV. And Next, The World!

I’ve just argued that coders and lawyers should use two spaces after their sentences because it makes their writing much more skimmable. Of course, coders and lawyers aren’t the only people who should be trying to write highly skimmable content. Anyone who thinks that their writing might be read by a busy reader—which is to say absolutely everyone—should be thinking about how skimmable their writing is. If there’s a sentence that the reader has already grasped, they should be able to move on to the next sentence.

But I actually think that the case is even stronger than that. Even people who don’t care about skimmablity—indeed, even people who are absolutely committed to the idea that they shouldn’t produce final documents with two spaces—should still use two spaces when they draft documents.

In my next post, I’ll explain why that is. And I’ll also answer the question of why, even though this post is dedicated to the benefits of having two spaces between sentences, all the sentences in this post are separated only by a single word space.

In the meantime, please let me know all the ways you think I’m wrong—especially if you’ve ever written a line of code or a legal brief.

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6 thoughts on “Meta-Contrarian Typography”

  1. I’m a programmer, and I type all of my prose in the same tool that I use for coding: my text editor. That includes even this very comment. I always use one space after sentences for two reasons:

    1) My text is usually processed before being displayed for reading, and so the sentence spacing doesn’t actually matter in the end. As you noted, your post is displayed with one space between sentences, and that’s because the browser crushes multiple spaces into a single space. It’s a consequence of HTML syntax.

    2) I’m lazy.

    When writing in LaTeX and troff, I go with one sentence per line, like that guy in the far right of the xkcd comic. This works much better when collaborating (line-oriented source control), which is usually the case for LaTeX since it would be for a research paper. Also, troff works better with one sentence per line, because it makes sentences unambiguous, which leads right into my next point.

    There’s a great argument for using two spaces that I am unable to dispute, and it’s tied to the period being “overworked” as you put it. Good text editors have some degree of semantic understanding of the structure of the text being edited. For example, both Vim and Emacs have core commands to operate on whole sentences. With periods overloaded for things other than ending sentences, these poor editors don’t have any way to distinguish between different uses of the period. So, by default, both are configured for two spaces between sentences. This is unambiguous and it’s an easy rule to follow.

    I didn’t know about the em quad before reading your article, but now I’m convinced it’s the best sentence delimiter. It’s perfectly unambiguous, semantically meaningful, and it’s only one “character.” It could unite the one-spacers and two-spacers. Unite against it, that is, since it’s such a pain to type and both would hate it.

    1. You know, this is about the fifth time that I’ve decided to split a post up and had someone come along and make the point from my next section in the comments. Maybe I need to make more creative points!

      But yeah, I think that letting the program have “semantic understanding of the structure of the text,” as you put it, is one of the key reasons to draft with two spaces, even if you intend to publish with one. I think that’s helpful with Vim/Emacs (having gotten into coding more recently, I’m partial to Atom, which I believe is mostly in the Vim camp). But I think it has a few benefits beyond that, as I’ll go into next time.

      I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the follow-up post.

  2. It’s fun, I was wondering why I had never seen the double space at the end of a sentence in the pre-1950 books I’ve read and I had my response in the second example (Modern Printing volume 2, John Southward, 1915): it wasn’t done in France (Yes, I’m French), perhaps because the period is not used as much in French (for example, the comma is used instead of the period in numbers).

  3. I like diversity as relief from the straight jacket of conformity when there is no good reason for variation and defying convention is proscribed. When there are different technical implications of the variants, these can vary with context and therefore no universal prescription is possible. Again, diversity is the solution. The meta-contrarian rationale borrows from the philosopher Saussure in signalling something. The signal here seems to be bloody-mindedness. Signalling like this causes an urge for conformity. Without meta-contrarians, most writers would adopt a single space, this being a compromise between none and two. The function of the meta-contrarian in this application seems to be merely provocative or oppositional, according to Derrida. I cannot imagine that this position has any value and exponents are a waste of two spaces each.

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