Intensive Purposes: Punctuation

writing editing essay

writing editing essay

I didn’t even realize that the spacing after a period was a thing until I sat down to proofread a document of my mother’s one day. After spending twenty minutes fixing typos, reformatting this and that, and deleting extra spaces in between words, I left her to review my changes and came back to more pesky extra spaces! When I started deleting them once more, my mother frantically asked what I was doing.

“Deleting extra spaces. You have a lot at the beginning of your sentences.”

“Um, they’re supposed to be there…”

“No, they’re not.”

This discussion continued in various forms, at various volumes, for some time before we both finally realized that we were operating under two different formatting “codes”. Raised in an age where digital and typed documents are common, an extra space stands out like a sore thumb. However my mom is used to the earlier days of word processing, where adding an extra space after a period was the norm, done in order to make the sentence break easier to read.

When typing was taught on a typewriter rather than a keyboard, double spacing after a period was common.  On typewriters, every character is given the same amount of space, called monospaced type, rather than the proportionally spaced fonts common on keyboards and computers today.  Monospaced type makes it more difficult to distinguish new sentences, and two spaces were thus used after punctuation marks to note the change.  Nowadays, the number of spaces is more of an aesthetic choice, as proportional typesetting has rendered the double space obsolete.  The connotations of using two spaces, however, may lead to unwanted and unjust age discrimination; if a potential employer spies two spaces post-period in your resume, you may come across as old or not technologically savvy.

Since talking about this with my mom (yes, we talk about grammar on a regular basis. Weirdos, I know) she’s paid closer attention to the articles and documents she reads, and noticed that, indeed, most sentence transitions only contain one space, not two. It never struck her before, as that was the way she had learned to type. She’s by no means technologically illiterate — in fact, she’s quite the opposite, and worried that continuing to double space after a punctuation mark would date her, giving off a first impression to new colleagues that she’s “behind the times”.

Knowing the history of the extra space, it makes sense to me now, and I realize the feeling of “This person makes so many mistakes! They don’t know what they’re doing or how to type!” that I sometimes feel when I see a large amount of spacing errors in a document is a generational thing. I believe it does date you (unfortunately); people have concerns about giving away their age for a number of reasons, but if you want to blend in and not draw attention to the technological era you hail from, I’d suggest getting in the habit of dropping the extra space so you don’t give off the impression that you’re not up-to-date with technology.

Did you spot my double spaces? Do you think it makes a difference in your finished typed document?

A play on the misquoted phrase “for all intents and purposes”, Intensive Purposes tackles one grammar rule or English language tip — from proper punctuation to misused phrases — in an easy-to-understand mini-lesson. 

  • I didn’t spot them til I went back! I think on posts it’s hard because usually when I’m proofreading something I click in the space and move left and right to see if there really are two spaces, or if my eyes are just terrible. I didn’t know that this was a “thing” though!

    This series is by far my favourite right now. Really loving these posts.

    • I have to say, it’s harder online than in a Word document, at least for me, to spot the extra spaces. Bad eyesight doesn’t help either (I suffer from that as well). It took calling my mother out on it to realize that this was an actual thing and not just a case of her having bad eyesight as well!

  • Ok, so I would in NO WAY consider myself “old school” or even “old” but my 9th grade typing teacher (COMPUTER typing) drilled two spaces into our heads. When I went to design school, I had to try to break that habit. It’s STILL incredibly hard to remember to only do one.

    • Which I think brings up another question; a lot of schools still teach “typing”, and frankly that’s the core component of their “computing” class. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a lot of kids who don’t know how to type (and better yet, try to use just a few fingers like when they text) so it’s a valuable class, and honestly, HOW to type hasn’t changed much, but it doesn’t feel like they’ve updated the class at ALL since we were in school, which is a bit frightening.

  • Kay

    I thought some of your spaces looked bigger, and was really glad to read that last sentence and not be going nuts! 😀 When learned to type (which started in 5th grade I believe?) we never learned to double space, but I remember some teachers in middle school requiring it in their essay formats, which always confused me. I never knew that originated from typewriters (which makes total sense) and know I do! Thanks!

    • When you don’t know the reason why, it’s all the more confusing! When there’s no communication between generations, things like that easily get lost. Who would think that TYPING would change? I certainly didn’t, which made me all the more surprised to hear that my mom actually learned to put 2 spaces and it wasn’t a simple mistake. I’m sure she didn’t expect that typing was a technology she had to “keep up with” in all of this, either.

  • I was taught to double space by my mom, who taught me keyboarding on a typewriter (we were poor and didn’t get a computer until 1997). I think my middle school keyboarding instructor also insisted on two. I didn’t even know that the rule had changed until I saw an article about it in Slate.

    In my teaching, I’m running into the opposite problem this year – for the first time in my career, an unusually high number of 8th graders aren’t putting a space between the period and the first letter of the next sentence. I have no idea where it’s coming from!

    • Language changing is a great and very cool thing, but these little things don’t seem to be so widely broadcast, and they really should be. Even my kids who are doing research papers right now — MLA has changed since I was in school, since last YEAR, and I’ve got to make sure I keep up on it for their sake. Whew!

      No space between the period and first letter of the next sentence!? Woah! I think even when you use, at least on the iPhone, a double tap shortcut to make a period, it automatically puts the space their for you, so I’m curious as to where this is coming from. I’ll have to keep me eyes out too!

  • My mother would also double space after periods, and taught me to do it too, although I promptly forgot about it and haven’t done it since. It’s strange though that it’s still a thing (sort of). If you double space on your iPhone, it automatically adds a period and puts your next letter in capital, which I find pretty interesting. I did notice some of your double spaces! A hah!

    • I love that the iPhone has that shortcut, but I never thought of it in this sense! Double spaces look a little more pronounced, I think, in Word documents, but I’m glad you spotted these ones 🙂

  • Audrey Easter Fizer

    I’m 28, and I was taught in school to always use a double space after a period. I still do. It’s a habit I cannot, and frankly, refuse to, break. I haven’t noticed in my students’ work which form they take, but my 9th graders have a research paper due on Tuesday, so we will see!

    • I just had a student today turn in a paper with two spaces! It’s a tough habit to break I’m sure, and while it definitely sticks out to my eyes, I find nothing wrong with it. It seems to just be a matter of redundancy in today’s world. It should be fun to see what your kids turn in!

  • I’ve heard that some people use double spaces, but I had no idea it was due to the spacing on typewriters! Interesting!

    • Fun fact thanks to Mum 🙂

  • My coworker and I had an argument about this exact topic (she’s my mom’s age) and it basically ended up with us calling each other old and babies.

    • Hahaha, it’s really polarizing! I actually just had a student turn in a paper today with the extra space and was kind of surprised!

  • We have a French contributor who taught me that in French punctuation they end sentences with a space before the punctuation! Who knew ? 😛
    Also I noticed this: “for all intents and purposes”, which style that keeps the punctuation outside of the quotation marks? I think MLA says the opp.

    • Woah, didn’t know that!

      MLA has the punctuation inside the quotation marks, but some places will tell you only put them inside the quotation marks if what you’re putting in quotes isn’t a fragment. Of all of the wacky grammar rules, this is the one I probably hear the most confusion on (myself included; I feel like this is one I’m constantly double checking depending on the scenario).

  • Amy

    Interesting post! I have so many problems with this at work, but had never realised it was typewriter related. I’m old enough to remember the double spacing thing being taught at some point, but I never followed the rule.

    • There are lots of English grammar rules that are just meant to be broken 🙂

  • StephLaCava

    This is really interesting! So, I’m in grad school right now and our professors debate about the space issue all the time. One professor (a relatively young one) is all for double spaces. Makes writing papers for her a pain. All of our other professors are cool with the single space. The one professor who wants double spaces cites APA formatting as a reason for double spacing. But, I wonder if it’s an older version of APA that she may be citing? Will definitely look into this more. Would love to chat with her about it and *maybe* convince her that double spaces aren’t needed!

    • Interesting! See, I can get behind having a personal preference, but I just can’t fault like, my own students, anyone for using one over the other. It’s not something I’d penalize a student for using. I hope you can convince her!