The recurring space debate; was: Subject:,Re: Advice on starting out; dealing with employers

Subject: The recurring space debate; was: Subject:,Re: Advice on starting out; dealing with employers
From: David Neeley <dbneeley -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Sun, 01 May 2011 11:51:00 +0300

As usual, typography used to enhance the reading and comprehensibility factors of a piece extends far beyond single or double spacing after periods.

For those such as dyslexics who see text "jumping around on the page" there are probably other issues at work in addition--such as line length and leading and of course the fonts chosen.

The single vs. double space after periods essentially became an issue with typewriters and generations of machines with only fixed pitch fonts rather than proportional ones and no choice of space widths other than multiples of the single space width built in to the machine.

Most arguments about the issue today seem to stick stubbornly to a technology which is becoming vanishingly rare (you may have seen the article about the last typewriter factory in the world closing recently in India).

Proportional fonts have a variety of spaces at hand, and the most modern computer writing tools take advantage of that fact--and do not permit the use of more than one space after periods.

Gene mentioned "at one time" that DoD documents required double spacing after periods. I would be fascinated to see if that were still any sort of requirement.

The only place I see a real use for multiple spaces is in programming languages that use the spaces as a part of the required syntax. Arguments about double spacing in regular text seem for the most part to be a rather stubborn clinging to what one may have learned in typing classes decades ago.

As it happens, later this month I will celebrate my 62d birthday. I, too, had high school typing training that did its best to build the double space after periods into my muscle memory. However, when I moved to proportional fonts a few decades ago and became interested in the best possible results, I retrained myself to move on from the world of fixed pitch fonts and their artificial conventions. I would urge those of you who are substantially younger to do the same thing.

If you really want to see what well-set typography looks like in your own writing, I suggest you consider downloading the free Lyx authoring application. Since it is based on the TeX typsetting language, the output is gorgeous--and you will not find any multiple-space-after-periods no matter how much you try.

To create the most readily intelligible text, meanwhile, a careful analysis of your font choices would be in order. The ubiquitous "Times New Roman" isn't that great a choice for this. The Times family was developed to squeeze in a maximum number of characters in narrow newspaper columns while retaining some readability. There are far better choices today for documents with wider column widths--although I am not particularly taken with the trend to all sans-serif fonts for long text. Those with visual or cognitive challenges, I find, appreciate the visual hints given by serifs to help guide the eye along the line of print.

I also prefer fonts with reasonable x-heights and only modest ascenders and descenders. Again, that seems to help the visually impaired to distinguish more easily between similar characters.

Line leading, too, plays a part. Too dense, and your eye can wander from one line to another. Too loose, and your eye has difficulty finding the right line after you finish the last one. Both are especially bad for the visually or cognitively impaired. However, the optimal line leading is a function of the font and font size, the material, and the line width. It is difficult to reduce this to some mechanical formula--which is why word processors only approximate a reasonable leading and often produce output that looks fairly terrible.

This obviously can only scratch the surface. Learning to use a single space after periods in proportionally-spaced text, however, is a good beginning.


On 05/01/2011 08:55 AM, techwr-l-request -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com wrote:

Sat, 30 Apr 2011 22:45:58 -0700

techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com

On 04/29/2011 09:35 AM, Carter Campbell wrote:
> Chris Morton wrote:
>> [. . .]
>> One tip I'm going to offer right away is to eliminate using two spaces
>> after
>> punctuation in all further communications. Regardless of how you were
>> taught
>> in high school or college, this convention became an anachronism as
>> manual-
>> and non-IBM Selectric typewriters became relegated to The Antiques Road
>> Show.
> Man, I can't believe that this keeps rearing its ugly head. I am not
> going to try to start this same tired old fuss-session up again (well, I
> guess I am, but only quickly)
Me too.:)

, but other than the result being "pretty"
> and that it's "just not cricket", do you think there might be another
> reason why you might want two spaces after a period instead of one?
We would agree that we would single- or double-space sentence ends in
the interest of keeping to an established style guide. But the perennial
argument for single-spacing, by typographers going back centuries, is
the claim that double spaces slow readers. It might as well be the claim
that two spaces take more paper and so increase publishing costs.
Whatever it boils down to, it is from a different age. Modern research
tells a very different story.

For example, here's research that finds reading being mediated by a
process in our brain that governs how big or small an area of text we
take in, and how long our eyes dwell on it. (see" Reading as a
Perceptual Process", ISBN 978-0-08-043642-5).

This process isn't well understood yet, but the study results support
the theory that the reading brain is slowed by what it doesn't
recognize. When a reader comes across something unrecognized (let's say
an unfamiliar acronym), the size of the text area taken in by the eyes
gets smaller, and the eyes dwell on it longer, Again, reading is slowed
while the eyes take in the unfamiliar. How spaces, whether em- or
en-dash worth, can be unfamiliar is a mystery to me.

> > I would think that it would depend on your audience and not on your own
> delicate sense of style. There are groups of people with learning and
> reading disabilities (such as dyslexics) that find it difficult to read
> through or scan a document that looks as if it is rammed altogether.
> Since many of these people are taught to read patterns, they will look
> for a larger space between sentences to give them visual cues.
The effect on dyslexic readers sounds like a different issue, and a very
interesting one for tech writers to be aware of.

Dyslexics sometimes describe the difficulty of reading as "words jumping
around on the page." It never occured to me before that the patterns of
white space on a page could interact in some visual way to make reading
more or less difficult for dyslexics. Yow! I am all for doing whatever
it takes to get people in my target audience to read the manuals.

To me, the "rivers of white" don't jump out and disturb my reading, but
I can see that effect if I look for it. A page can look awkward if I
appraise it as an aesthetic object--if I see lots of contiguous white
space flowing vertically through the lines, it looks sort of loose and
sloppy. But I think the effect is harmless, the time needed to improve
it would be wasted, and I doubt that any but the pickiest of art-minded
readers, authors, or editors would obsess over it.

Still, it isn't hard to imagine contiguous white spaces appearing to be
in motion or otherwise interacting with the words jumping around on the
page. But if we're to produce dyslexic-friendly manuals, I feel like
we'd have to go m-u-c-h deeper into the questions about the needs of
that audience. I suspect that single- or double-spacing for the sake of
dyslexic readers would amount to a token gesture, at best.


If, in your best estimates, you are in a domain that
> "would probably not have too many people who struggle to read", then one
> space would be just fine.
I must have been a mule skinner in a past life to think, as I do, that
this is a great rule. I'd love to see it applied. Hyah!

> > It can also be argued that a work of fiction, which IS art (for the most
> part), should have one space, because two spaces breaks up the aesthetic
> of the page, but I don't think that we intentionally write fiction.
I think we prefer to say that we "synthesize information". Same
difference, sometimes.

Regards to all,

Ned Bedinger
doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com


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