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A Word, Please: Give a little thought to spacing

June 19, 2013|By June Casagrande

This is a column about nothing. It's kind of like a show about nothing, just less entertaining — and a lot less lucrative.

The nothing we're talking about is the blank space around punctuation. And for a whole lot of nothing, these blank spaces sure are something. A lot of people struggle with how to space after periods and around ellipses and dashes. But if you just note a few simple facts, it's easy.

Remember how back in the days of girdle-bound typists you were supposed to double space after every sentence? Well, that made sense back in girdle times. Old typewriters printed in "monospace" — a system that gave the same amount of space for every character, be it a tiny period or a capital W.

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In this technology, double-spacing after every sentence kept each paragraph from looking like one big run-together blob. Those days are long gone. Word processors now make sentences distinct and easy to read. But a lot of people are living in the past.

One recent Thanksgiving, Slate.com writer Farhad Manjoo asked a group of highly educated dinner guests what they considered to be the "correct" number of spaces between sentences. "Everyone — everyone! — said it was proper to use two spaces," he reported in a 2011 Slate piece.

Manjoo didn't mince words: "Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly and inarguably wrong."

I don't share Manjoo's passion, but I agree with the principle. So does every professional publisher I know of. These days, there's no reason to double space after sentences. News and book editing styles call for a single space to separate sentences. Academic and scientific publishing manuals allow for double spacing, but they also allow single spacing.

When it comes to ellipses, I do get a little emphatic. An ellipsis without spaces around it looks terrible. It can make a whole paragraph look amateurish, probably because it's so out of sync with the look of professional writing, in which style guides require a space on either side of an ellipsis: "Ask … what you can do for your country."

Spacing around ellipses can seem tricky when the text before the ellipsis is a complete sentence. In those cases, here's what most news media do. End the sentence with a terminal punctuation mark, most likely a period. Then insert a space. Then type the ellipsis.

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