Friday, September 25, 2015

Heraclitean River: Why two spaces after a period isn't wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)

Why two spaces after a period isn't wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)

The topic of spacing after a period (or “full stop” in some parts of the world) has received a lot of attention in recent years.  The vitriol that the single-space camp has toward the double-spacers these days is quite amazing, and typographers have made up an entire fake history to justify their position.

The story usually goes something like this:

Once upon a time, typographical practice was anarchy.  Printers put in all sizes of spaces in haphazard ways, including after periods.  Then, a standard emerged: the single space after a period.  Unfortunately, the evil typewriter came along, and for some unknown reason (usually blamed on monospace fonts), people began to put wider double spaces after periods.  Typographers railed against the practice, but they could do nothing.  Actual printed work used the single space, but the morons with their typewriters could not be stopped.  Early computers and printers used similar monospace typefaces, and the evil persisted.  Then, in the past couple decades, it became possible to use proportional fonts easily, and finally typographers could step in and save the day again with their single sentence spaces!  The only people today who continue to use double spaces are stodgy old typing teachers and ignorant fools, who dare to think that their practice is okay in the face of the verdict of the experts in typography.
Unfortunately, this whole story is a fairy tale, made up by typographers to make themselves feel like they are correct in some absolute way.  The account is riddled with historical fabrication.  Here are some facts:

  • There were earlier standards before the single-space standard, and they involved much wider spaces after sentences.
  • Typewriter practice actually imitated the larger spaces of the time when typewriters first came to be used.  They adopted the practice of proportional fonts into monospace fonts, rather than the other way around.
  • Literally centuries of typesetters and printers believed that a wider space was necessary after a period, particularly in the English-speaking world.  It was the standard since at least the time that William Caslon created the first English typeface in the early 1700s (and part of a tradition that went back further), and it was not seriously questioned among English or American typesetters until the 1920s or so.
  • The “standard” of one space is maybe 60 years old at the most, with some publishers retaining wider spaces as a house style well into the 1950s and even a few in the 1960s.
  • As for the “ugly” white space, the holes after the sentence were said to make it easier to parse sentences.  Earlier printers had advice to deal with the situations where the holes became too numerous or looked bad.
  • The primary reasons for the move to a single uniform space had little to do with a consensus among expert typographers concerning aesthetics.  Instead, the move was driven by publishers who wanted cheaper publications, decreasing expertise in the typesetting profession, and new technology that made it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to conform to the earlier wide-spaced standards.

I can't begin to tell your how much this article is a breath of fresh air.

Do you think discussing religion or politics is a good way to make total strangers hate your guts and threaten violence against you and your family and everybody you brushed up against on the subway for the last six months?   That's nothing compared to what will happen if you dare to discuss sentence spacing with typography nerds.

Or even worse, ask one what font should be used.   Or even worse, dare to suggest that web pages should respect a user's personal font/size preferences (as configured in his web browser) and not force a style that may not be readable on the user's device.   Does anyone really think that a single font will look equally good on a 1200dpi printout, a 300dpi Retina screen, a 72dpi CRT monitor, a Kindle, a mobile phone and a wristwatch?   Typography nerds will insist that they know best and that you are an evil human being if you dare suggest that they can't possibly know what's best for every single device that might someday be used to display the text.   I've actually been personally attacked and banned from an on-line forum (one having nothing to do with typography) for making this suggestion.

Read the rest of the article for a great history on the subject.   And I love the fact that the author has deliberately formatted it using an extra-wide space between all the sentences!   As a show of solidarity, I've done the same for this article.

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