Friday, January 14, 2011

Spaces after a Period

All my life, I'd been a two spaces after the period guy. That's what I was taught in my typing class in 1974. Not as a recommendation, or as a best practice: simply as The Truth. A period was followed by two spaces. After God types a period, his right thumb goes duh-dum on the space bar. Everyone knows that.

But I work for a typographically savvy organization, and a couple years ago they established a house standard of a single space after a period. After more than thirty years of ending every sentence with a thumb-stutter flourish this was very difficult for me. I still end many of my sentences by typing two spaces, and then a backspace, and probably will to the end of my days. But I've changed over. I've converted. I'm a one-space man now.

I've long been curious about this change, so I was happy to see this article in Slate by Farhad Manjoo. According to him, the double-space rule was codified during the reign of the manual typewriter. It was making the best of a bad job: in monotype every character takes up the same width on the paper, regardless of whether it's a big fat 'm' or a tiny period, and you have a problem with periods (and colons, which are just as narrow: everything I'm saying here pertains to colons as well as periods.) They float way out there on their own, in a sea of white space. In order to ensure that your period works like a typeset period, so that it looks like it belongs to the sentence it ends, and has nothing to do with the next sentence, you have to exaggerate the space that follows it. And since we're in monotype land, space-and-a-half is not an option. You have to take two full spaces. And so a rule is born, and taught to a generation of typists, not as a best-of-a-bad-job rule, but as God's Own Truth. There are two spaces after a period. (This is in a nutshell the life-history of most rules, actually: kluge → standard → holy writ → shibboleth.)

I was surprised by a couple of things. One was how outraged I was by being required to do something that directly contradicted what I had grown up believing, and had conscientiously enforced as a teacher for several years myself. I was amused by the reaction -- since I have never been able to bring myself to see it as an important matter -- but that didn't mitigate it. A single space, my heart told me, was simply wrong, and no good could come of it. My heart sank every time I sent out a thank-you letter from the Foundation full of this awful error. I knew that people just like me were picking up their thank you letter, sighing at the solecism, and murmuring, “can't you expect literacy even from the Library these days?”

But I was relieved to find that actually, after I'd produced the letter, I couldn't really see a difference. So the next surprise was that while most of the time I couldn't see it, the person who reviews my letters could. For several weeks after the change, I would get letters back to do over, with an extra space circled in red. She was always right, I learned. Often I could only tell how many spaces there were by opening the document up and arrowing over the white space. One space or two, which to my eye was nearly invisible, was to her quite obvious and unmistakable. It's one of those moments, which I prize, in which I am forced to accept that what I see and what other people see are not the same thing. I used to think I had a good eye for that sort of thing, because I've always excelled at pattern recognition. But actually that works against me in this case. Some murky substratum of my visual processing believes, with all its heart and soul, that a single space and a double space are the same thing. I'm like a Japanese man, learning English, trying to persuade his voice and ear that 'r' and 'l' are not the same consonant. It's heavy going, and I don't think it will ever be second-nature.

It's wonderfully warm out, in the fifties if not sixties, and after a couple days of freezing temperatures that feels like summer. The moist air carries a multitude of scents: the world is alive and breathing again. I like ice and snow as a novelty, but its charm wears off fast. I am entirely a creature of the temperate Northwest coastal zone: freezing temperatures put me out of my reckoning. During this last cold snap I actually contemplated purchasing wool socks, which I haven't possessed (or felt the lack of) since skiing and climbing as a child. Perceiving my feet as cold, and thinking of that as remediable, was as foreign to me as seeing two spaces after a period. There was only a vague sense of discomfort, a nagging impression that something was wrong. I discovered they were cold only by finding myself persistently endeavoring to sit with one foot under the other knee, the only footwarming habit familiar to me. “Hey, I know what this is,” I thought. “This is my feet being cold! People wear wool socks to address this!” I felt a sudden kinship with all those heretofore inexplicable wool sock wearers. My brothers and sisters, after all!

No comments: