Embedded within this paragraph is an “error.” Can you find it? Is it glaringly obvious? I’m guessing that it isn’t. In fact, I’d bet that until I point it out to you, you won’t realize it’s there. Want a hint? It’s not grammatical. It’s not punctuation, either. It’s . . . Wait for it. Wait for it. . .
It’s typographical. The previous paragraph has two spaces after each full stop. This one has only one space after each full stop. Notice the difference? Chances are, you didn’t.
With the possible exception of the Oxford Comma, no stylistic convention generates more vitriol than the 2-space/1-space controversy. Proponents on both sides engage in strident argumentation. Tempers flare. Edicts are pronounced. People are [gasp!] unfriended on Facebook.
What’s all the fuss?
When first read of the issue, it was blamed on typewriters. I read that the double-spaced full stop was a direct result of the advent of the fixed-width fonts that early typewriters used. Since I grew up before there were word processors (with their wonderful proportional fonts), and since I was taught to always type two spaces after a full stop, I didn’t question the assertion. It made a weird kind of sense…well, as much sense as the British v American rules for whether punctuation goes inside or outside the quotation marks.
But when I read old books–and by “old” I mean books printed well before I was born–I noticed that they had a wider space after each full stop than the space between words. I noticed this because I found it easier to read. The extra space at the end of each sentence gave my brain a peripheral heads-up that a full stop was coming, and I could parse the sentence faster (since I knew where it was going to end). But some of these books were so old as to have been printed before the invention of the typewriter. Why, then, the wider space at the full stop?
It turns out that the whole “Blame the Typewriter” explanation is complete bunk. If I’d spent any time at all looking into the question, I would have found several articles on “sentence spacing” and even a study on the difference 1-space vs 2-space might make to online readability. (For a full and extensive discourse on the topic, check out this article.)
Using wide spaces at the end of a sentence is a practice that goes back literally hundreds of years. There are 18th century pamphlets that discuss the practice, and the reasons for it (i.e., readability), so obviously, it’s been around much longer than the typewriter. Even the Chicago Manual of Style has flip-flopped on the issue, and since I’ve been investigating the issue, copy editors have told me of clients who prefer “French spacing” (single space after full stop) over “English spacing” (two spaces). This difference, then, is not a secret, it’s not a big “controversy,” and it’s really, really not a big deal.
So, which is right? Which is preferred?
If you noticed, up in that first paragraph, I put the word “error” in quotes. I did that because there is no “right” or “wrong” in this question, just matters of stylistic preference. Do you prefer the 2-space full stop? Then double-tap away. If you’re a single-tapper, have no worries; you’re okay, too.
The only time either of these styles is “wrong” is when your editor wants it the other way. Keep those editors happy.