The Mac Is Not a Typewriter. Your PC Isn’t Either.

It astounds me sometimes, the amount of push-back I get when I tell authors, “You know, we don’t double-space after periods anymore.” They absolutely cannot believe it.

Dear hearts, it is true. It has been true for at least twenty years, when I flunked a typing test taken on a computer at the local university because I’d double-spaced after every period. I know this is going to come as a shock to many of you.*

There are two reasons for this news flash, and they work in tandem.

You see, the human brain processes letters and characters and turns them into words and sentences based on shape. You don’t read each individual letter; instead, you see the shape of a word like the and your brain knows what it is long before you process the individual letters. (This is why, by the way, SOMETHING SET IN ALL CAPS IS SO DIFFICULT TO READ. NO SHAPE.)

That’s the first reason. Here’s the second.

Some of you reading this may actually remember typewriters. :) The typewriter was what they called a monospaced instrument: each letter took up the same amount of space. No matter whether it was an m or an i … or a period. Every character was assigned the same amount of space. (Even a space was allotted the same amount.)

This created a loosely spaced document. (If you’ve seen a typeface default to Courier, you know what this looks like.) Output from a typewriter wasn’t as pretty as professional letterpress typesetting but it sure was convenient. However, words typed on a typewriter were so loosely spaced that the brain had trouble processing the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. Thus arose the convention of tapping the space bar twice after a period. Now the eye could easily see the end of a sentence.

Enter the computer. Enter the desktop computer. This is not a monospaced instrument. It can “think.” (Oh, just work with me here, please.) It allows a little more space for an m and less for an i. Furthermore, the space that follows a period is slightly larger than the space that follows a letter. In other words, the computer distinguishes between a) the space between words and b) the space that follows the end of a sentence. The latter is larger, and allows your eye to see the end of the sentence.

Because of this, if you double-space after a period, you’ve inserted too much space.

This is apparently a very emotional issue for a lot of people. But trust me: no double-spacing after periods. I don’t care what they taught you in your high school typing class. Those times are gone. Stop doing it and Your Editor will be happy. :)

* All this certainly came as a shock to me. But then I went out—in 1991, y’all!—and bought a little book called The Mac Is Not a Typewriter by Robin Williams. Whence the title of this post. It’s short, inexpensive, very Strunk and White-ish—and will probably improve the way your documents look. The second edition is now available, and I’d highly recommend it.

 

Tweet: The Mac is not a typewriter. Your PC isn’t either.
Tweet: Stop double-spacing after a period. No, really, stop.

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10 Comments

  1. Amy Parker says:

    You have no idea how many times I’ve seen this! (Actually, I’ll bet you do. ;) First ‘edit,’ find/replace all double spaces. :)

  2. Roz Cawley says:

    What a very interesting post. Though I have never used it (because I never learned to type properly!) I have often wondered about this convention – now you have explained it to me in language that I can understand. Thank you for this, Jamie!

  3. jenny says:

    OOOOhhhhh! This is great info – and I WAS taught double space in my high school typing! Although I stopped years ago- somehow, someway, word got through to me. Ok, now I can explain to my husband why I read quickly. He doesn’t believe I’m actually reading, and swears I’m skimming! Now can you help me explain why I can tell him what happened in the last paragraph, but never word for word as written?

    • Jamie says:

      Oooo, good question. Probably because you don’t have a photographic memory, just good comprehension. :)

  4. For anyone moaning about a manuscript with all those double spaces, it’s easy to do a “replace” using that feature in Word. Simply set the computer to find the double space and replace it with one. These thinking machines are amazing! :-D

    Becky

    • Jamie says:

      They are indeed. That is the first order of business for me when I get a manuscript with double spacing after periods. Aaargh! I can’t read it, or it will drive me mad! :)

  5. Beth Bates says:

    A h h . . . Streams in the desert.

  6. The shape thing is one of the technique to improve reading speed. We have to look at the top of the words while reading…

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