Extra Spacing After Sentences

Typographical rules are sometimes based on empirically proven ease of reading, but much more often they are simply tradition or aesthetic preference. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it gets annoying when such accidental habits are declared absolute truths or, worse, justified with made-up history. And that is the case with the often-heard claim that “two spaces after a sentence are bad and a relic of the typewriter era.”

This myth is thoroughly destroyed by three 2011 articles I recently came across. Mark Barrett’s Two Spaces After a Period argues from aesthetics and experience, providing a number of screenshots to illustrate how the extra spacing can be sometimes helpful. Later in the year, an anonymous author writing as “Heraclitus” presents mountains of historical evidence in two articles, Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history) and The Chicago Manual of Style and a single space after periods. His findings are summed up in the following quotes:

  • 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.

For my own part, I vacillate between one and two spaces but generally use a single space with good proportional typefaces (such as Georgia on this blog). Ultimately, though, I prefer the slightly expanded spacing of the TeX typesetting system. I think it strikes an optimal balance between a visual separation of sentences, and maintaining a pleasant appearance of the entire text block. That is also the conclusion of “Heraclitus:”

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. For the record, […] my preference is not for double-spacing, but for a slightly larger sentence space, about 1.5 times an interword space for most typefaces. But unlike the modern single-space fanatics, I don’t judge anyone’s aesthetic preferences, nor will I try to make up fairy tales using fabricated history to convince you.

2012-12-18: Thomas A. Fine provides some great resources on the subject. He wrote an extensive overview article, built a nice demonstration of variable Sentence Spacing in HTML and CSS, and documents his ongoing research at Sentence Spacing.

7 thoughts on “Extra Spacing After Sentences

    1. cnahr

      “Heraclitus” double-spaces his post — I removed the extra spaces in my quotes but forgot to check what he did. The nbsp entity code should do the trick, though. That’s what I’m using when I want to force a browser to render some extra space in tables and such.

      Reply
      1. Daniel Lemire

        Hmmm… Ok, surely, you don’t put “something.[nbsp][nbsp]Blabla” as this would prevent periods from ending the line. So I guess you type “something.[nbsp] something else” this will create two spaces because I have nbsp followed by a regular space? But won’t this backfire on you at some point? For example, if the period ends the line, won’t there be a spurious space?

        Sorry, I am a bit of a web nerd.

      2. Daniel Lemire

        I checked and he does not use nbsp. He seems to have two “regular” spaces, though maybe they are special unicode spaces because I am pretty sure that browsers don’t interpret two regular spaces as a doubly-long space.

      3. cnahr

        I loaded the HTML source for his article into a text editor that shows Unicode code points, and the two space sequences are all U+00A0 U+0020. 0xA0 is indeed a non-breaking space, the same code that should be produced by nbsp, but input directly rather than using entity encoding.

        The second normal space should take care of line breaks, as you suggest. I found some lines that end with a sentence, and there’s the 0xA0 after the period on the same line, but the regular 0×20 is correctly swallowed by the browser.

  1. Thomas A. Fine

    Hi,

    I have an article about HTML that I wrote some time ago. It’s here:
    http://hea-www.harvard.edu/~fine/Tech/html-sentences.html

    To sum up, ideally you’d use spans and the CSS word-spacing parameter, and failing that effort you’d use use one of the other spacing elements besides nbsp (like ensp) which will correctly disappear where the line wraps (nbsp does not). There are also recent unicode characters for various spacing widths that should work in theory.

    Great article by the way. You should take a look at my new blog, Sentence Spacing:
    http://widespacer.blogspot.com/

    tom

    Reply
    1. cnahr

      Thanks for your links, those are great resources! I’ll add a postscript.

      The span mechanism is a clever idea, and a very nice demonstration too. Shame that HTML never got better spacing control. Personally I think it would be best to specially mark periods not followed by wider spaces, as in TeX, since those are less common; but I don’t think there’s any way to do this in current HTML.

      Reply

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