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Spacing after periods

December 16, 2011

Last night I was re-reading my favorite work by Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies.  I have the paperback 1971 (5th) edition published by Princeton University Press.  Popper’s work (which made its way onto the Modern Library’s list of  the hundred best non-fiction works of the twentieth century) is profound in many ways and deserves careful criticism. 

I’m not going to do that here, though.  I’m going to talk about something fairly trivial.  I’m going to talk about spacing after periods.  You’ve probably heard about the debate between “double-spacers” (who put double spaces after periods) and “single-spacers” (who put single spaces after periods).

The Internet has allowed the rise of a certain type of zealot; one who makes dubious pronouncements with absolute certainty.  The question of spacing after periods is one sort of issue that loves to attract attention on the Internet, and a certain Farhad Manjoo has ridden the issue to Web-dom celebrity by absolutely saying “double-spacers” are wrong. 

As far as I can tell, Farhad Manjoo has no background in typography, but he is willing to make absolute statements on this issue.

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong. And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste…. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after. Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical [sic] rules of the profession.

Manjoo was not content to simply spew misinformation in his Web columns, but he also felt it was necessary to appear on NPR’s Fresh Air program to continue his campaign of misinformation.  What Manjoo was not willing to do, apparently, was to actually pick up some books and see how typesetting actually was done in the 20th century.

Here is a sample fragment from the 1971 edition of Popper’s book (which certainly qualifies as a major publication from a major publisher):


As you will notice, the text clearly has double spacing after the period.  For example, look at the word “hated” in the second line, followed by a period.  Notice how large the spacing after that period is compared with the other words in that same line. 

So, here we have a famous book, published in the second half of the 20th century, while Manjoo claims that since the early 20th century “Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical [sic]  rules of the profession.” 

Of course, Popper’s book is hardly the only book that violates Manjoo’s supposed “canonical [sic] rule.”  I am quite certain that if you take several volumes off your bookshelf, you will have no trouble finding works that use the double-space rule.

Of course, this point is rather minor (and distracts me from doing what I really want to do, which is to post some thoughts about the content of Popper’s book – as opposed to typography.)  And I cannot say that those who use the single-space rule instead of the double-space rule are “wrong.”  But I still think it is worth pointing out Manjoo’s error as a reminder that we should not believe everything we read on the Internet, no matter how vehemently it is stated.

On this same theme of not trusting everything we read on the Internet, Nina Zumel gives the following example on her Multo (Ghost) blog.  She first reprints this xkcd cartoon:


And then she suggests:

Try it yourself.  Type “legend of the three crowns of east anglia” into Google (or whatever your search engine of choice may be).  You should see a page full of references to the following sentence:

The device refers to an old legend of the three crowns of East Anglia, and the blue colour represents the Anglo-Scandinavian heritage of much of East Anglia.

“Citation needed,” scolds Wikipedia.  Citation needed indeed, because (and any M.R. James scholars who stumble over this, please correct me if I’m wrong) there is no legend of the three crowns of East Anglia.  M. R. James invented it, in his 1925 short story “A Warning to the Curious.”  His legend tells of three crowns, each buried in a different place off the coast of Great Britain to keep foreign invaders at bay.

James was a medieval scholar, an expert on older manuscripts, and folklore seems to have been a special interest of his.  He had the right kind of knowledge to invent a convincing “ancient legend.”  I can easily imagine the story making its way into the stream of local lore; but still. James’ ghost stories are reasonably well known, and 1925 really wasn’t that long ago, on a historical scale — especially in Great Britain.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2011 6:12 pm

    My family and I have been having conversations about this very thing. [space, space] Thanks for your post! [space, space] I can’t wait to show it them.


    I still want to read your post about Karl Popper, [space] when you do post it.

  2. December 19, 2011 3:57 pm


    It looks like the spacing in the example you posted is more than two spaces.

    While I don’t think I’ve quite created facts out of nothing, I do offer a hypothesis on where this new rule comes from. The hypothesis could use some historical research to strengthen it, but I think it’s reasonable to offer it as is, to combat the “facts” that other people are distributing:


  3. December 20, 2011 12:43 am

    Tom, thanks for your comment. I am sorry it was stuck in “spam jail” for a while. I enjoyed your article quite a bit.

    Kurk, even when I make multiple posts in a day, I feel that I am “behind” with all the things I want to post.

  4. December 20, 2011 5:02 pm

    You keep me behind with my comments. I love your posts. Please keep them coming.

  5. Sam permalink
    April 9, 2012 10:27 pm

    Just stumbled upon this while looking for articles on spacing. You might want to have a look over here for an explanation that seems to be more accurate that Manjoo’s history:

  6. April 9, 2012 11:39 pm

    Thanks. I enjoyed reading that blog post very much!

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