The one space vs two spaces debate has been ongoing for years in academia, PR and typology. But it was revived when, in 2020, Microsoft Word officially adjudicated two spaces as wrong and marked them with the wavy blue line of bad grammar. Was Word right to delete double spacing? PingGo wades into an argument that is far from over.
When Peter Mutterhofer invented the typewriter in 1867 he did not know that his new product would spark a century of fierce debate and competition. By choosing to adopt a monospaced font, where every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space, Mutterhofer encouraged writers to adopt a double spacing after end stops to distinguish different sentences. And so, the two spaces began.
In the 1940s, the typewriter became a popular tool in American and European offices: knowing how to use a typewriter would guarantee you a job as you were seen to have one of the most valuable skills of the century. Soon, two spaces became the norm across businesses, journals and newspapers.
But as typewriters were gradually replaced by computers in the 2000s, the need for double-spacing no longer made sense. Tech designers spent hours designing proportional fonts that no longer required double spacing (except the font Courier interestingly), so why stick to it?
To settle the space debate, psychologists from Skidmore College in New York conducted a study in 2018 on 60 students. They wanted to find the answer once and for all.
‘To date, there has been no direct empirical evidence in support of these claims, nor in favour of the one-space convention.’
The psychologists started the study by dictating a paragraph to students and observed that 21 out of the 60 students used double spacing. Subsequently, they asked the students to read a text with randomised spaces and tracked their eye movement to decide whether their reading was impacted by spacing. Their conclusion was that two spaces after the period is better because it makes reading slightly easier.
However, the benefits of the two spaces- increased reading speed and ease of eye movements- were very minor and were limited to the 21 students who had originally used two spaces. Lifehacker’s one-space purist Nick Douglas also pointed out that the study had been undertaken using Courier, a font that mimics typewriter script. Even the academic journal itself removed double spaces when the article was published. So, are there real benefits to the use of two spaces?
Although there may be benefits to two spaces writing, it is clear that the practice is slowly being abandoned. Today, it is seen as an old-fashioned and overly-formal way to write as people tend to favour efficiency over tradition. Farhad Manjoo, tech advice columnist of The Slate, argues that:
‘Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.’
This statement might seem harsh and biased, but it reflects the gradual move away from single spaces. Today, every major style guide, including the UK Government and the Thesaurus prescribes a single space after a period. Even the American Psychological Association -which published Skidmore College’s study- recommends one spacing in published work.
So it seems that two spaces are becoming outdated. But with new tech being designed every day, who knows what the next space trend will be?