I took my first typing class in the 10th grade. I was excited because we were the first class to learn to type on a computer versus a typewriter. I’m probably aging myself by admitting that, but it was a big deal in the early 1990s! I remember learning how to type without looking at the keyboard. The instructor would time us and take points away for typos. And I remember the instructor strictly enforcing that we MUST type two spaces after a period. As far as I was concerned, this was standard typing procedure and I typed two spaces after a period for most of my adult life.
Just a few short years ago I was in a meeting with colleagues and I was taking notes on my laptop. One mentioned that I had put an extra space next to the period. The other leaned over to him and stated, “She’s a two-spacer.” What did that mean?! Apparently, typing two spaces after a period was incorrect?! Since when? I prided myself on being an excellent typist, so this was extremely troubling.
I immediately did some research and found that one space after a period is now the norm. This was shocking. I was typing incorrectly all these years! But why was I taught to use two spaces? I consulted with friends and colleagues my age or older to see if their experience was the same as mine. All had been taught to type with two spaces but their reactions varied to the change. Some were accepting and transitioned to typing one space. Some were frustrated and didn’t want to retrain themselves. And others were defiant, insisting that typing two spaces after a period was absolutely the correct process. What I discovered was that there is a debate raging on this topic that I was blissfully unaware of. But where did this come from? Why were we taught to type two spaces in the first place?
The Two Spaces After a Period Myth
During my research, I discovered that all explanations for typing two spaces after a period went back to the typewriter. The typewriter is designed so that each letter occupies the same space on the paper. For example, the letter “i” is as wide as the letter “m.” So, the typist needed to leave two spaces after the period so readers knew where the sentence ended and the next one began. On the contrary, a digital typeface has appropriate spacing built into its letterforms. Since letters are nested together, there is no need to type two spaces after a period. This reasoning rings true in my experience. If my typing instructor was accustomed to typewriters, then it would make sense that she would carry over that two-space training to teaching students on computers. But is that really the whole story?
Debunking the Myth
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The typewriter became popular in the late 1800s. So, this means that typographers needed to change with technology. Printed material all had one space after a period before the typewriter came along, correct? Wrong. Printers have been using wide spaces long before the typewriter became common. Many publications used a double-space (or an em space) as the standard very early on. A recent article by Dave Bricker titled “How Many Spaces After a Period? Ending the Debate” surveyed book typography before the late 19th century. Here are some examples.
This example from 1787 shows the em spaces in red. And even some strange spacing is used with a colon. The author circles those in green. Using a space-colon-em dash combination is not common in the present day.
The use of em spaces continues in 1840 in the document below. You’ll also notice the use of a space before the semicolon.
And in 1855 the styling remains the same. Em spaces are used in print before the typewriter becomes common.
So, while the typewriter explanation seems perfectly reasonable, it is not the first time we have seen this two-space style. Typographers have used two spaces after a period for a long time. Does that mean that we should continue to use two spaces? It’s important to remember that these examples clearly illustrate that typography is an evolution. I don’t doubt that the typewriter necessitated the need to continue to have two spaces. But we must be adaptable to the times. The move to a single-space seems to be a natural progression based on technological advances. But is it the correct way to type? Some experts are saying no, two spaces after a period is perfectly acceptable. So clearly the debate is raging on.
Let’s be honest: Change is hard, especially when you learn to type one way and years later you are told you are doing it wrong. To those fellow “two-spacers,” I feel your pain. And I can proudly say that I have learned to type using only one space after a period. It was challenging, but I’m glad I did it. But if you want to continue to be a “two-spacer,” carry on! Some experts say you are not in the wrong. We must remember, evolution is difficult and takes time. Who knows? In 20 years people might ask, “What’s an Oxford comma?” But that’s a debate for another time.