Two spaces and authority

Something I have to tell people about every so often, and would probably have gotten around to doing a blog post on, is that the rule so many people learned about putting two spaces after a period was a rule invented for typewriters and never appropriate for proportional type, such as we use now on computers. However, Farhad Manjoo of Slate has just given such a nice explication/rant on the topic (even if a little too harsh at times) that all I really need to do here is link to it. Which I have just done.

But if you’ll look at the comments, you’ll see not everyone agrees with him. And their reasons for disagreeing with him are for the most part not based on rational argumentation focusing on the points he’s made. They’re generally in the line of “You’re wrong because you’re wrong,” “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong,” “Who cares?” and “That’s not what we were taught, so you’re wrong.”

The first two kinds of response – “You’re wrong because you’re wrong” and “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong” – are easily waved off. Circularity is obvious and juvenile, and popularity is not always a proper basis for correctness. (In typography, the design aims for maximum readability and minimum unbidden distraction, and double spacing defeats that when the type was designed to have proper kerning after a period. So it’s not like language usage, which in the long run is decided by mass opinion.)

The third, which is exemplified by the comment “You know what’s even more outdated than using double spaces at the end of a sentence? Typographers,” is the argument from and for ignorance. The truth, of course, is that typographers are not outdated; perhaps that commenter thinks that God or magic makes everything look pretty and readable on the page, and that all letter forms are sent straight down from heaven. But if there were no typographers, he and others would discover the true meaning of text looking like shit.

It’s the final category of comment, though, that touches on a point that comes up quite often when language professionals talk with their clients and other people who might think they know what they’re talking about but don’t really. An exemplary comment is “Hey jackass. Us two spacers didn’t invent this practice. It was taught to us somewhere, more than likely in a typing class. So despite your assurances, I assure you that it is correct.”

Oh! It was taught to you somewhere! Ohhhh. I see. So it must be right then! Because teachers are always right. And yet there are other commenters in the same thread who say they were taught not to use two spaces. So they were taught somewhere that double-spacing was wrong! So that makes them both right! But they can’t both be right! Oh noooooooes! Mai hed hurtz.

So I’ll say it, just to be clear: Just because you were taught it doesn’t mean it’s right.

And here’s an even more important fact: School teachers are not subject matter experts. They teach what is in the curriculum, which has been determined by school boards and politicians, and most of the time it’s right, and of course in order to teach it they need to know enough about it to teach it. Certainly most of what they will teach you is true (whether you remember it correctly is another matter). But they are not always right about everything.

And some of the things you are taught in school are not entirely right, either. Usually this is because you aren’t quite at a level to understand the matter exactly correctly; you will find this in university, too – linguistics students are constantly being told that what they learned in a previous-level course was actually a bit oversimplified. Sometimes the school curriculum hasn’t caught up with reality. In some places, due to politics, the curricula are impervious to established reality on some important points. But also, students are sometimes taught things that aren’t in the curriculum but that the teacher just happens to believe. This is how many mistaken beliefs about grammar have been spread. (See When an “error” isn’t about those.)

But let’s just get this right down clear and straight: you probably know that your high school biology teacher knows less about the human body than a surgeon does. You may know that your high school physics teacher knows less about physics than one of the physics professors at MIT, Cal Tech, or Stanford, and less about engineering than a professional engineer who builds bridges for a living. So why do so many people believe that what their high school English teacher taught them about grammar and writing is the highest, most expert level of fact, handed down as though from God? Here, I’ll put it in bold so people can see it when skimming: Your high school English teacher was not an English language expert. He or she probably acted like one. But if you really want to understand English grammar and how it works and why it is the way it is, you’re going to need to get much farther than the rather basic understandings you came out of high school with.

Now, those who read this blog regularly will know I take a pragmatic approach, and generally dislike inflexible thou-shalt-not rules. So what’s with me saying thou shalt not use two spaces after a period? Well, it’s like this: you can use two spaces if you want to, but it’s probably not going to look as good. The type was not designed for it. If you submit it for publication, the designer will convert double spaces to single spaces pretty much immediately, and in fact will probably run that replacement without even looking to see if there are any to replace. So you’re making either a little extra work or not really any extra work at all for the designer, but you are wasting your energy with every unneeded space. Hey, it’s your energy…

But if you double-space, at least don’t insist that single-spacing after periods is wrong. It’s not. It’s actually preferable in proportional type. And it doesn’t matter that you learned it in school. The fact that you learned it in school doesn’t mean it’s right. You have a brain, right? I’m sure you’ve questioned other things you were taught. Well, question this too! Find out!

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7 responses to “Two spaces and authority

  1. Pingback: Can a metaphor be hyperbole too? | Sesquiotica

  2. Hi James,

    Just to add a different technology and perspective to the mix. When I’m casting lines of type on an Intertype machine the concept of single or double space is moot since a variable width spaceband is inserted when compositing justified text. The space after the period (or any other punctuation) could be any size depending on the numbers of characters and words in the line. If you grab a nearby novel there will likely be different spacing after periods throughout the book.

    I enjoy your blog a great deal, thanks very much!

    Cheers,
    Allan

  3. Interesting rant taking into account different perspectives and opinions. There was actually an entire thread based on two-spaces-after-a-period? That must have been one intellectual, endless, discussion. “Well, it’s like this: you can use two spaces if you want to, but it’s probably not going to look as good.”—Enough said! On the matter of teachers (I am one too) on not being experts—very true. We are doomed. :)

  4. Wish you spent less time slamming high school teachers and more time examining the real reason why people were taught that. It wasn’t that their high school teacher didn’t know any better. It’s that *when* they were taught it, it *was* right. The key point is that the computer isn’t a typewriter.

    • It seems that there are still people out there teaching it. Also, more generally, there are other ideas about language that people come away from high school with that are also incorrect. But the point is not to slam high school teachers; you’re reading that into it. When I say a biology teacher is not an expert in biology, that doesn’t mean the teacher is incompetent. When I say a physics teacher knows less of the subject than an engineer, that’s not a slap to the teacher; the engineer knows less of how to teach than the teacher. Teachers know what they need to know: how to teach, and what knowledge students can handle at the school level. The mistake is ours for thinking what we learned in high school is the last word. That’s a mistake of over-inference, not so different from reading “your teacher is not a subject matter expert” as a slam – the point is that it’s not their job to be subject matter experts.

      The issue I was most interested in addressing, anyway, was not so much the two spaces matter – although obviously that’s the focal issue – but the arguments being used to justify it, especially the “that’s what I was taught” argument, which is used to justify a variety of linguistic mumpsimuses. Much of the time it’s not what they were taught, anyway.

  5. Pingback: Two Spaces Forward, One Back | Now Read This

  6. Michael Ayers has a post on this topic referencing this post, at http://aplangcomp.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/two-spaces-forward-one-back/ . He calls me out – reasonably enough – for saying too absolutely that teachers aren’t subject matter experts. It’s true that some of them actually are! What I really should have said is that one should not assume they are subject matter experts. What they are experts at is teaching. (OK, yes, a few of them could be better. But let’s see you try it. It’s harder than it looks.)

    Even if you are being taught by a subject matter expert, there are two other things you should bear in mind:

    1. You may not properly learn what they are teaching you. Most students don’t get 100% on everything.

    2. They may not be teaching you the full, complete, ultimately accurate facts. Not because they’re misleading you, but because you aren’t at that level yet. You would understand less, and misunderstand more, if you were taught at too high a level. See my remarks above about linguistics teaching.

    I do think I should make it extra clear that I do not want to hate on teachers. They have a really hard job, and they work a lot harder than many people think they do. My mother is a teacher. So I know. (And, by the way, she often sends me typo corrections for my blog. :) )

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