One Space or Two? The Punctuation Battle of Generations

How a holdover from the days of typewriters inspires fierce loyalty from the masses.

One space or two?

Why is this even a question? Because it’s a style that has completely changed in the last generation.

A little history:

When books were set by hand, there was a special wider space that was used between sentences. But when typewriters were invented, all the characters were the same size, so creating a wider space required hitting the space key twice.

In the 1980s, computers and digital fonts took over, our word processing or web publishing software programs were created to make the adjustments automatically, and so then we needed just one space after a period.

In fact, using two spaces began to be considered an error in punctuation, which is why if you work in Microsoft Word, you’ll see a green underline that shows an error in grammar or punctuation when you put an extra space after the period.

And when you type into a web program, like the comments section here, the HTML will automatically delete the extra spaces.

Is two spaces always totally wrong?

One of the most eloquent and no-doubt-about-it opinions is from Farhad Manjoo of Slate.com, who wrote that “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, complete, utterly and inarguably wrong.”

He, like me, is surprised at the number of people who still use two spaces, and even more surprised at their misplaced confidence that two spaces is absolutely, positively, the proper way to do it.

Business and personal use are two different things, of course.

I want to make sure you understand where I’m coming from. Yes, I am a grammar, spelling and punctuation nitpicker, but I’m not an English teacher. I’m a recruiter and job search coach.

I’m talking about what is proper in business usage.

Business standard is one space.

In the business world—which includes your business emails, cover letters and your resume—it is important to follow standard usage, and that means one space after a period.

Every style guide will tell you to use one space. Every typographer will tell you to use one space. Every editor will tell you to use one space. Anything you read, including magazines, newspapers, books and websites, has been laid out using one space after a period. It’s simply how it’s done.

And yet, it still seems controversial.

On the personal side, do as you wish.

I’m only talking about business writing here.

Language is an art, and if your art requires putting six periods between every sentence or making everything a haiku poem when you’re writing on your blog or to your favorite Google email list, go for it.

In fact, I write my personal emails in all lower case. I find it faster and it fits my style. But that’s only for personal correspondence, never for business.

There are some style guides for college papers that call for two spaces, but they also call for double spacing between lines, because the style is meant for a teacher to have plenty of room to make comments or edits, not for business or publication.

“But that’s how I was taught and I can’t change.”

One thing is clear: people are freakin’ passionate about their opinion on this one, and the predominant reasoning of the two-spacers is some version of “that’s how I was taught, so that’s what seems right to me.”

I’ve even read comments from school teachers who acknowledge that two spaces is wrong, but still insist on teaching it to their students!

Come on folks, I relearned it, and so can you.

This reminds me of the story of the holiday baked ham recipe, which I heard years ago.

The legend of the family baked ham recipe:

There was a woman who cherished her handed-down-through-the-generations special recipe for holiday ham.

First she’d cut a large slice from each end of the ham, and then she would put it into the roasting pan, dust it with brown sugar and spices, and bake it.

One day, she was teaching her own children how to prepare this family dish, and they asked why she sliced the ends off first.

She realized she had no idea, so she called her mother and asked her if she knew why.

Her mother replied that she did it because her own mother had done it that way, and so together, they called the grandmother.

“Why do we cut the ends off of the ham before we bake it?” they asked.

And the grandmother replied, “Because when I married your grandfather, we were poor and I had just one baking dish, and it was too small for a whole ham, so I had to cut the ends off to get it to fit into the pan.”

And that is how habits are handed down through the generations, and why the “we always did it that way” argument makes no sense.

It’s time to give up the two spaces, people.

Yes, when we typed on typewriters, two spaces was the style. That was then and this is now.

Now we type on software with great typography capabilities, and we don’t have to trick it into leaving a little extra space for readability. It can do it on its own.

Why do I care?

Again, I’m talking about how this comes into play in a job search.

When I review your resume created in Microsoft Word, it shows me green underlines where you’ve insisted on using double spaces after a period, and that distracts me from the actual content.

Even if you send me a .pdf, my eye is trained to read documents, and I can see where an extra space has been left in, whether it’s between words or between sentences.

Those extras spaces catch my eye, and that moment of distraction means that instead of, “wow, this person looks perfect,” I am thinking, “there is a mistake” or “here’s another person who hasn’t learned to do things in the digital age.”

Is it a minor issue? Sure, in the scale of life, it might even be called petty.

But if that petty mistake diverts the attention of someone who’s considering hiring you, that little difference could be a costly choice.

So give it up, and come on over to the one-spacer side.

Thanks to Leslie Ayres