Space is the Place

My Harvard Facebook group has been discussing an article Ellen Jovin shared: Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period! 

I was blissfully unaware of this seismic shrinkage until a month or two ago, and several months before my fall from grace, I was reading student papers and observing that the use of just one space after a period looked underwhelming (all the more so when there were other infelicities in the writing).  I had no idea that it was the new normal.  Thus, having brought the two-space-embrace with me into the computer era—twenty-five years ago!—I am having a hard time adjusting to my sentence, to this notion that I should halve my space.  And it has thrown me to think that I had failed to notice the new standard.

And, my spacing shows me to be . . . over 40!  Bless me, youngster, for I have sinned.  By surviving four dozen years without dying.  (My shame was eased ever so slightly when I read that I have classmates who, like me, prefer the two-space program.)

A couple of weeks ago, I read another account of the same phenomenon.  When first I heard, I figured it must have been a Twitter repercussion, a capricious notion arising from that character-meter that tells you how many spaces you have left in your microtext.

At last having time to satisfy my curiosity, I just now took a moment to look at some academic journal articles, choosing one by Harvard’s Daniel Albright—and, well, I remained vexed, because academic articles are right/left justified!  (In addition, there is approximately one punctuation event per paragraph, so the data set is unreliably small.)  No wonder I had not noticed the disappearance of the sous-space.  So, am I now to understand that these articles circulating and proselytizing about saving space apply only to texts such as this blog, type[sic]scripts, and the like?  And æther-mail?  It seems odd for dual-spacing to be considered such an offense when people are hyphenating adverbs and using colons after verbs and stuff.  Not to mention all the nouning and verbing that I see every single day.  (It’s a fail-ure, not a fail!)  I just don’t get it.  Why is there suddenly so much attention to decreasing the space between words when the words themselves are so often shabby?

And how is it that being over forty has now become a sign of being a poor writer?  I thought we were the ones always telling the hipsters to shape up.  On the contrary!  This new generation is so judgmental:

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste*. . . .  What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.
—Farhad Manjoo, “Space Invaders”

*I have yet to receive word of the fate of the four-dot ellipses used at the end of a complete sentence.  Did anyone think about that before they voted to semi-space all sentences?  Does a proportional font—the reason given for the new zoning regulation—obviate the need for a distinction between the end of a sentence and an unfinished sentence?  The marker of omission—the series of three mute dots—has already been brutally smooshed together . . .  as if the mysteriously unstated is merely nonexistent.  Do I understand correctly that it is of urgent importance to save a space after every sentence, while it is acceptable to use three question marks just before???  And what about the poor em dash—which has so often suffered drafts from either side, not to mention getting replaced inexplicably with the inadequate little hyphen?

And how is that the space between sentences is getting all the funding for repair, when there are still so many extra spaces between words within so many sentences?  We seem to be losing sight of the everyday here, focusing on the dramatic, to our detriment.

I cannot help but think that this coup de point arises from broad cultural shifts.  Bad ones, of course.  Do we want to give in to them?  We complain about being busy and rushed—and people write about our complaints with sentences that I now realize are granted only a single space to breathe before the next begins.  Is that really a coincidence?  And more and more people are staying single.  Could they be behind this eschewal of the paired space?  On the other hand, our culture seems to have trouble with boundaries, and we are flirting dangerously with word disindividuation here: how long will it be before we abandon punctuation altogether and every sentence is one breathless portmanteau word with indistinguishable syllables?


I get it.

It doesn’t matter whether what I write is intelligible, or meaningful, as long as it looks good.

Now, that makes sense.

There is no penalty for describing oneself as “reticent” to adopt a dog.  As long as the dog gets one space and one only.  Consider this pair of sentences: “Old Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure, is walkable and safe.  Stroll the only walled city North of Mexico and its cobblestone streets.”  I gather no one will be confused about the location of those cobblestone streets as long as they don’t wait too long after the safety announcement before commencing their stroll.

And to make it worse, I look at this absurdly long disquisition and now think there is too much space after my sentences.  I have been tamed.  But, before letting go the second space, I’ll remember these words:

When I write, therefore, I enhance the meaning borne in my sentences—not only in dialogue but in narrative—by imposing on them silences tailored through heavy use of commas, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks.  It is something that gives my copyeditors hypertension, yet I encourage students to write this way, and to read their pieces aloud as often as they can, to an audience if possible.  An audience furnishes feedback, tells you by its response how well your scansion’s working.  Thus, I tell my students, silence boosts the import of the words you write.
—George Michelson Foy, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence

Of course, the book where I read this is also fully justified.

—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp