The case of the missing space Why did double-spacing disappear?

I just took the time for a more careful reading of “Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history).” It’s absolutely fascinating (for a typographer), and completely persuasive. More space after periods was obviously a true standard for centuries — not just practiced but prescribed with a clear, sensible rationale — and then single-spaces took over almost overnight in the middle of the 20th Century without any apparent typographic justification. They just happened. (And then, after a while, typographers started heaping contempt on those who double-spaced). Why did it happen? Here’s the author’s best guess:

In sum, the primary rationale behind the shift was probably not aesthetic, since printers had accepted the same conventions for centuries. Instead, it was a move generated by economic concerns. Publishers wanted cheaper books with less whitespace and less time and expertise to typeset, and the technology they developed required simpler and lazier methods of spacing.

I believe it. Even today, as I contemplated whether I might want to consider adopting the old standard, I quickly realize that it would be a major technological challenge to efficiently and consistently implement on a huge website. It’s certainly do-able, but it’s not easy, and there would be a real production costs and downsides.

For instance, if I were to generate the correct spacing on in my source documents, it would mean cluttering up my documents with HTML entities, making them significantly more difficult to read myself, not to mention edit. I could process my documents between source and upload, but that would introduce a significant automation step that would require regular auditing, and would almost certainly introduce embarrassing errors that I wouldn’t notice at first. Plus it’s actually difficult to programmatically distinguish between a period following sentence and one following an abbreviation — and I doubt that’s the only “gotcha” trying to detect only the full stops. So decades after it started, automation still depends heavily on uniformity of text convention — that is, one-space for all purposes may not be better, but it’s still a lot technologically easier! Incredible.

There actually is an answer, probably

While I prefer a single space — from exposure — the more I think about it, the more I suspect that a single-space after periods is, in fact, “wrong” — that a little extra space after a sentence actually has a sensible rationale, that it was good typography, that the change was not just a trivial shift in aesthetics but a genuine downgrade.

Assuming it did indeed happen because of economics and technology. Which, I think, is an extremely plausible theory.

Extra space after a period fits into a perfectly sensible scheme already in practice everywhere else in layout and typesetting: we use space to “break up” text into more visually manageable bits, and the amount of space used is roughly proportionate to the significance of the break.

Viewed from this perspective, it seems a bit absurd to use the same spacing between both words and sentences.

Yes, it matters

Not a lot, but it does. I am professionally obliged to sweat the details of readability.

When I first shared this on Facebook, someone (inevitably) commented about the absurdity of obsessing over this. But here’s the thing: I am actually a typographer; I have to “set” type, and lots of it, for a fairly huge number of readers, well over 25,000 of them per day. Caring about that is not “obsession,” it’s just ordinary professionalism and diligence in my line of work.

Certainly people can and do go too far with their nitpicky zealtory about grammar, punctuation, typography, etc. But there’s a story here that’s far more interesting than simply pounding the table about a tiny little detail of typography. It’s fascinating to me that so much holier-than-thou-ness has been spewed (by me too) about this topic in perfect ignorance of what actually happened. Amazingly, it turns out that the spacing issue is not just an impossible aesthetics argument: there are hard facts of typographical history that have been chronically left out of all such discussion for decades.