When you are writing a manuscript, essay, or any other formal document, there are certain formatting rules that are expected in a standard document. One of the more confusing rules is the number of spaces that come after a period. This is because of the conversion from typing on a typewriter to typing on a computer.
In the older days of composition, before word processors and computers created typed documents, many were forced to plunk their way, letter by letter, on a typewriter. When you learned to write on these typewriters, you were told one thing: put two spaces after every period.
This was because typewriters used a process called “monospacing” when creating text. Monospacing means that every character that you could type would be given the same amount of space. In other words, the letter “l” took the same space as the letter “K.” The two-space rule after a period, or any other punctuation mark, for that matter, was required so that a reader could see that there was a clear ending to the sentence or thought.
Today’s computers are different. They don’t use monospacing, which means only one space after a period is necessary to complete your thought.
Why Are Computers and Word Processors Different?
Computers and word processors use what is called “proportionality.” This means that each letter is adjusted within the document to the actual size of the letter being used. The software being used to create the document can recognize the difference between the letter “l” and letter “K” and then assign a proportional space to each one.
For this reason, you can fit more letters into a document space through a computer or word processor than a typewriter. Computers can put 12 letters into the same space that a typewriter can put 9 letters.
So if this is the case, why are so many people still putting two spaces after a period? And why are some teachers still teaching that this needs to be done? Simple: because we must unlearn what we have been taught.
Some Typing Teachers Are Still Marking the Extra Space
You’ll find this with teachers who are involved in typing and are above the age of 45 most often. They were taught typing on a typewriter and formatting rules at the time dictated the two-space need after a punctuation mark. Because that was how they were taught, they teach students in the exact same way.
Some of this still happens even today. You’ll find students coming home with marked up documents showing the need for two spaces simply because the “new” rule about having only one-space hasn’t been learned yet. Or worse – the one-space rule has been discarded simply because it is “new.”
So let’s be very clear. Modern typing on a computer or word processor will always involve just one-space after a period. If you happen to be using a typewriter, the old rules still apply because of the monospacing that occurs on that device, so two-spaces would be required.
Why Is a Space Even Necessary After Punctuation?
You might hear some folks respond to these formatting rules and say, “There’s an easier way to eliminate this issue. Just have no spaces after a period. That way you don’t have to worry about having one space or two.”
And to some extent, that is a valid thought. With automatic formatting that is available on a processing program like MS Word, it is possible to create rules where spacing is automatically inserted as you type. That way you don’t have to worry about the number of spaces that you’re putting in after the end of a sentence.
Yet there will always be a need for spacing after punctuation in some way. The extra spacing allows a reader to recognize the end of one thought and the beginning of another. We use zero spacing for certain punctuation marks, such as an apostrophe, for the very same reason. You don’t put spacing within a contraction because that would indicate two distinct words.
So What Is the Solution?
The solution to the two-space rule being finally abolished is education. Talk to those who are insisting on putting two spaces after a period, even though they are typing on a computer, and let them know the rules have changed. Be caring and patient.
After all, the two-space rule was drilled into the heads of writers for several decades. It’s tough to change a writing habit, but current rules are clear. There should be only one space after a period.