The Problem With Two Spaces, And The Myths Surrounding It (It’s Not An “Old People” Problem)

I’m a writer, but writing doesn’t pay the bills, and in order to do that I have my own editing/writing services business. Over the years I have dealt with new writers, established authors, prospective students, students ranging from freshmen to doctoral candidates, and business people in a wide range of fields. And more than you’d think, I have at least one experience in every “group” of clients I have mentioned that share a common trait: They use two spaces after a sentence. And this drives me crazy. It hurts my eyes, and not because I’m a grammar snob (trust me, I’m not) but because seeing all the white space, seriously makes my vision blur.

Breaking news for those not in the loop: Using two spaces after any end punctuation is not cool, in fact it’s a problem. But contrary to a lot of what I hear, both jokingly and serious, it is not an “old people” problem. I have just as many younger people doing it, and they don’t want to stop anymore than the people who have been doing it for decades. I don’t consider myself old (I’m 30), but I was taught to use two spaces, and then I had to break this habit in college. It can be done, and you’ll be so much happier when you do get in the habit of the single space. Not because you’re a grammar snob, but because when it comes to submitting things for class, work, or in hopes of being published the people reading your stuff, grammar snobs or not, are going to care. Here is all you need to know about how this problem came to be and why it is a problem, and how to break the habit (I hope).

MYTH #1: It’s Not One Space, It’s Two

All right, let’s start here. Now, when you are using a computer or word processing software it is one space after ending punctuation, not two. This isn’t a trend! I go crazy when I hear that. A trend changes: what is in style now versus last year, what will be in style later. The one space thing is a change, but it’s here to stay, and while many people still use two spaces, it’s actually been one space for quite awhile.

Here’s why. Before computers became so commonplace, people used typewriters. You probably already know this. See with typewriters, two spaces are a must. The rule became obsolete when people started using word processing software however, because the creators/developers of such programs were smart, and made their technology smart. Like autocorrect. Oh my God, sometimes I hate autocorrect. It’s technology trying to think for me, and in being convenient, it can cause problems if I’m not mindful. Well this is the word processing equivalent (assuming you have turned off your program’s autocorrect, otherwise you have two examples of technology trying to be smart and convenient, and sometimes missing the mark entirely).

Since programs such as Word, WordPerfect, etc. already allow for the extra space after a period, if you add an additional/second space there is too much space between sentences and the result it something looking kind of funky, but I’ll get more into that in a minute.

MYTH #2: Using Two Spaces Is An “Old People” Problem (You Know Those Aged 40+)

Some people say this jokingly, and others are completely serious when they say that this is a problem that is reserved for those who were born before 1975. I think this misconception stems from the whole typewriter thing, because how many people under the age of 40 first learned typing on a typewriter? But I promise you, I have as many twenty-somethings make this mistake as I do fifty-somethings. It is not an indicator of age, it is just an indicator of ignorance (and I say this without any negative connotations, people who truly didn’t know this had changed) or stubbornness (people who call this a trend and decide it’s not worth changing how they type).

Two years ago, I was working on a freshman’s composition paper and they used two spaces after every sentence. Whenever I work on something, I don’t just edit the paper, but I do a write-up and discuss the mistakes made repeatedly and explain the rule in a way that is easy to understand. I talked about how you’re not supposed to use two spaces, and I thought that would be it. He contacted me a week later upset because he received a low grade for the paper. At first, I was like, “Huh? What happened?” It was a personal write-up, no research or citations, and I took care of the mechanics and formatting, and his ideas and organization in the essay were good. He sent me his paper, and I immediately knew what happened.

He had warned me before that his instructor seemed to be a stickler, and boy was she/he ever. He was docked a total of 28 points for his spacing issues. Whenever I edit, I use Track Changes, so people can agree or disagree with my changes, and come to me with any questions. When I tell people this, I am talking about phrasing or other subjective things, not solid rules. The student admitted that he thought I was wrong about the spacing, and that was why he rejected those changes. He was 19. (He agreed to let me tell this story to reinforce my point so long as names, etc. were not disclosed, he’s been a regular ever since that first paper. Interestingly enough, his instructor let him earn some of his grade back by writing a short essay on why only a single space was used after a sentence when using a computer. And you better believe that every sentence in that second essay was followed by a single space – not two.)

A lot of people, of all ages and backgrounds, get the idea of two spaces into their heads. Whether someone tells them or they see it somewhere or just assume – it’s a lot more common than people think. When someone tells me they haven’t heard of the change in spaces, I just think that means they haven’t taken a formal typing class since the early nineties. And you know what – I never took a typing class ever. So, I was in the same boat twelve years ago, and someone had to tell me, “No. We don’t do that anymore.” At the time, I was 18. Not an old people problem.

MYTH #3: This Really Doesn’t Matter, And If You Care Then You’re A Grammar Snob

It’s not about being a grammar snob, it’s about presentation. Unlike sentence construction or punctuation, this is more about presentation than being correct or incorrect. When I see a document and the person uses two spaces I cringe on the inside, not because I think they’re stupid or ignorant or old or anything else even slightly judgey. I cringe because of how it looks, and silently apologize to my eyes.

Two spaces after each sentence leaves a whole lot of white space… empty space, dead space – I have heard all of these terms used to describe what happens when you have two spaces after every sentence. These large gaps in a document do not look good, and can be anywhere from distracting to disorienting. I mean when I read long documents that use two spaces, I start seeing colored spots by page 10. When I see hard copies of something that uses two spaces after each sentence I find myself looking at it, knowing something is wrong or off. “Why does this look so weird,” and then it clicks. They used two spaces.

MYTH #4: I Can’t Stop! I’ve Been Doing It For Too Long…

I know that if you use two spaces, it’s a habit – something you learned that you have to unlearn. But I promise you it can be done. Everyone is different, but when I tried to break my two-spacing habit, the first two weeks were rough, and everything was nearly two spaces with the occasion single space. And then in the third and fourth week something clicked and I was either 50/50 or 60/40 in favor of single spaces. And after that it was almost 100% single spaces with the occasional slip. I swear it wasn’t long before I never used two spaces again, and even better, I didn’t have to think about it.

Habits can be hard to break, but habits like biting your nails or pacing are probably ten times harder to stop than using two spaces. And vices like coffee, soda, smoking, etc. – they don’t even compare. Like most things, you can stop using two spaces – all you have to do is choose to stop using two spaces. It’s that easy.

MYTH #5: I Don’t Need To Stop Using Two Spaces.

Eh, yes and no. Here’s the thing, if what you’re typing is for your eyes only then you’re right and this isn’t a myth. You don’t need to stop using two spaces. But if you’re a writer and intend to submit whatever you’re working on to an agent, publisher, magazine, etc. you are sorely mistaken. Formatting matters to these people and first impressions are everything when it comes to such competitive industries. If you’re in school, it matters since I assume your instructor grades you, and formatting and grammar factor into your grade. If you’re writing a cover letter, proposal or anything else for work then it matters. Even if your boss doesn’t say something to you, someone who sees your use of two spaces probably will, if not to your face, they’ll mention to friends, other coworkers or on social media. Bottom line: if anyone else is going to see what you’re writing and it is for academic or professional purposes stop fighting so hard to keep using two spaces. Embrace the single space and you’ll be much happier.


Remember, the single space is not a trend. It’s not new and it’s not going to revert back to two spaces unless you’re using a typewriter, so good luck in all of your single-space endeavors! 😉

-DMW

How do you feel about two spaces versus a single space? Let me know in the comments!

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