The Washington Post reported on a study showing that adding two spaces after a period improves readability. Now all the use-two-spaces philistines are using this to justify their depraved practices. But the study proves nothing.
Three researchers at Skidmore College, Rebecca L. Johnson, Becky Bui, and Lindsay L. Schmitt, published a paper called “Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading,” in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. (Psychophysics? Qu’est-ce que c’est?) And, as the Post reported, for some students, reading was 3% faster for writing samples with two spaces after a period.
Here’s why this study is bullshit.
- The study used a monospace font, Courier New. Courier New looks like text from a typewriter; each letter is the same width (as shown below). Monospace text is already hard to read — that’s why we use proportionally spaced fonts in modern typesetting. The readability of monospace text with two spaces is irrelevant; in 2018, nobody reads text like that except typewriter fetishists.
- The lines of writing were quadruple spaced. Reading with extra vertical space between lines of text is not a typical reading experience.
- The students had their heads clamped in place. That’s not how people actually read — their heads move.
- There were only 60 students. A difference this small isn’t significant in a sample this small. Furthermore, undergraduates are not representative of the whole population with its diverse ages and levels of education.
- The advantage was only visible for students who normally typed two spaces after a period. Of the students, only 21 typically typed two spaces after a period. The 3% increase in reading speed was visible only among this small group of biased and befuddled students. For the remaining, enlightened students who used one space, reading was actually slightly faster in the one-space sample.
- The text wasn’t on a screen. While the reports on this study didn’t indicate for certain, it seems like the people in it were reading printed material. In real life, these days, people read from a glowing piece of glass. (That’s how you’re reading this, isn’t it?)
- Reading speed is not the best measure of text quality. I’d like to know if the reading comprehension was different, for example.
As a result, drawing conclusions from this study is irresponsible. It proves nothing. (Unless you are an undergraduate student who types with two spaces and reads your text in quadruple-spaced, monospace font with your head clamped in place — if that’s you, then by all means, demand two spaces in what you read.)
How we got to the one-space world and why we need to stay there
I’ll narrate this history with some personal notes.
Until typewriters, printed type was proportionally spaced. That’s what you read in books, magazines, and newspapers. My grandfather, who was a linotype operator, used to bring home slugs of lead type from his job. He showed us a block of headline type with our family name on it, but reversed mirror-style; you could press the block on an ink pad and print your name in big type on a piece of paper. I thought this was the coolest thing ever.
Typewriters, of course, created uniformly spaced print. They allowed ordinary humans to create and distribute type, but it was instantly recognizable as different from professionally printed material. Typewriters were the first step in democratizing the creation of printed material, since you could create and distribute your own text. Technologies like ditto masters (which smelled like a distillery and printed type in blue) and mimeograph machines made distribution relatively easy. Then xerography came along and you could copy and distribute anything cheaply.
Those of us who are old enough to remember typewriters learned to use two spaces, because in a monospaced font, that enhances readability. There is so much space between the letters already that you need extra space to cue the eye and the brain into where the sentences stop.
This convention got trained into our brains and our fingertips, and persisted in the early days of word processors. That’s because early word processor screens could only handle monospace displays, and because dot matrix and daisy wheel printers would print that type in a similar way, with all the letters the same width.
The Macintosh, and later Windows, introduced us all to bit-mapped screens. These allowed you to see on the screen what you’d get when you printed something out — WYSIWYG, or What You See Is What You Get. At first this was a curiosity, but rapidly, anyone who wrote needed to learn all the stuff that professional typesetters had been dealing with — fonts, font sizes, serif and sans-serif, fully justified blocks of type, and, of course, proportional spacing. Now tiny children first learning to type know what fonts are.
Once the world of writing and the world of professional type merged, it was inevitable that the conventions of good-looking printed text would win. Among those conventions is using one space after a period, because in a proportionally spaced paragraph, unlike a typewritten one, the spaces stand out clearly from the rest of the close-set type.
Those of us who learned the double-space convention from typewriters needed to learn to adjust to the new world. Since I was one of the first to adopt desktop publishing in my role as a professional technical writer, I adapted. I learned the two-space method on a typewriter in a high-school typing class in 1974, unlearned it as a professional writer creating type for printing in 1980, and fully embraced the proportional type, one-space-after-a-period-dammit world of desktop publishing in 1986.
I know that mobile phones put in a period for you automatically if you type two spaces. That’s nice. But they don’t show two spaces, they show only one.
This is no longer a question of taste. It is a question of convention. If we put all type in 16 points it would be more readable, but we don’t, because smaller type is conventional. It’s conventional to use proper grammar. It’s conventional to use italics for emphasis and underlines for links. And it is now a widespread convention to use one space after a period. Yes, it is better. But more importantly, it is now a standard, and standards are how we can all work together.
The 1970s were nearly 50 years ago. Give it up already. We live in a proportionally spaced world, for writing, printing, and reading on-screen. My grandfather was decades ahead of his time, but the world of type he lived in is now the world we all share.
So enough with the reactionary two-space thinking already. And if this study is all you’ve got going for you, that’s just sad.