Spaces after periods?

Subject: Spaces after periods?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 17 Nov 2005 16:23:32 -0500

The question you should generally ask in such cases is not "what have we always done (and don't tell me why)?", but rather "what advantage does doing X add to the process and is that relevant?" Blindly applying old rules without understanding why you're applying them doesn't help much, if at all. More often, it simply perpetuates ineffective practices that are no longer relevant, and conceals an opportunity for improvement.

The origin of the "two spaces after periods" style appears to lie back in the early days of typewriters, when we were limited to non-proportional fonts with fixed character widths. If you've ever had to read old Courier typescripts, you can see why it helps to add an extra space at the end of a sentence: it makes the end of the sentence stand out more clearly. Given that the cognitive science guys and gals tell us that we don't start assembling meaning until we hit the end of the sentence, and the fact that the end of the sentence is easier to spot with the added space, typing two spaces clearly adds value in this case.

The question then becomes whether this is a valid approach given modern proportional fonts with variable-width characters. The answer is most likely that the double space no longer helps; on the contrary, it increases the number of "rivers" of white space introduced into the text by any display software that actually displays the extra space (see below). These rivers are visually distracting and draw attention towards themselves and away from the text you're supposed to be reading; add enough rivers and it becomes actively difficult to read.

The problem has to do with "saccades" of the eyes (jumps of your area of sharp focus from one visual field to the next), in case you want to research the technical jargon. Fixed spacing makes the saccades easier and more predictable, thereby increasing reading speed and reducing the number of times your focus jumps past the end of a word. The reason typically given for lower readability of fully justified type relates to precisely this kind of spacing problem: if you aren't using a decent typesetting engine, such as the one provided by InDesign, you produce relatively more rivers and suboptimal spacing. InDesign can set fully justified type every bit as readable as unjustified type produced in other software.

For some software (including most Web browsers, I believe), the software simply ignores the double space. Adding the second space thus accomplishes nothing, other than increasing download times slightly and increasing processing times to display the page (probably by an undetectable amount on a fast modern computer). It slightly increases the amount of typing you must do, thereby increasing your risk of RSI, and for less-proficient typesetting software (e.g., Word), it creates a less readable layout. It certainly seems to add no offsetting benefit. That being the case, why keep doing it?

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
www.geoff-hart.com
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References:
spaces after periods: From: Michele

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