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Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy
Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy

How Many Spaces Should There Be at the End of a Sentence?

Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy
Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy

The question of whether you should put one or two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence elicits strong reactions on both sides. On the one-space side, this 2011 Slate article by Farhad Manjoo (which currently has over 800,000 Facebook likes) lays out the argument for why “typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.” Basically, it comes down to aesthetics, with Manjoo maintaining that “one space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing.” The two-space side, however, has its own idea of what’s visually pleasing, as forcefully argued in this comment to the Chicago Manual of Style Online:

About two spaces after a period. As a U.S. Marine, I know that what’s right is right and you are wrong. I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period. If you refuse to alter your bullheadedness, I will petition the commandant to allow me to take one Marine detail to conquer your organization and impose my rule. Thou shalt place two spaces after a period. Period. Semper Fidelis.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends, as most modern style guides do, the one-space rule.

Why is this a question?

The reason there is a conflict about this at all is because things changed. Early standards for typesetting used a larger space after sentences than between words. The space between sentences was an emspace, or the width of a capital M, and the space between words was one-third of that. You can see the difference in this excerpt from the 1910 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (which at that time endorsed the larger space after sentences):

For a few hundred years, the whole issue of text spacing was the province of printers and typesetters, and the average writer never had to think about it. Then along came the typewriter, and suddenly everyone could produce printed texts. The emspace spacing standard was approximated on the typewriter by using one space after words and two after sentences. And everybody learned to type that way.

But in the middle of the 20th century, the standard started to change. New typesetting technology used by printing companies made it easier and more economical to print texts with uniform spacing. People got used to seeing this style of printed text, and many thought it looked cleaner and better. But not everyone thought so, and a conflict was born. Plus, typists had gotten used to a double-spacing thumb action that was hard to unlearn, and was transferred, through typing teachers, to the next few generations. So even when people didn’t care one way or the other about the spacing in the texts they read, when they themselves were doing the typing, they preferred to stick with the way they learned it.

Which is better?

Some people think the double space looks messy because it leaves holes and “rivers” in blocks of text. Some people think the double space makes it easier to process sentence breaks. Some people think it’s easier to type one space, because why do something twice when you can do it once? Some people think it’s easier to type two spaces because that’s how they learned it. It would seem, then, that the spacing question is a matter of opinion. Certainly, as the Economist’s Prospero Blog points out, it is not a matter of grammar. It doesn’t have as much to do with language as it does with typing, or graphic design.

Still, even if you don’t have any opinion on the matter, when you’re typing something up, you’ve got to choose one or the other. If you are writing for someone to whom it matters—your boss, your editor, your teacher, your grandma—then you should use the standard they prefer (or the style guide they follow).

These days, the two-space style is sometimes preferred for pre-publication manuscripts (e.g., as stipulated in the American Psychological Association publication guidelines), but most work is published with the one-space style. If you’re texting on your iPhone you can have it both ways—a quick double-space with your thumb will come out as a period with one space after it. That shortcut pairs the traditional typing action with the modern look, reconciling both factions through technology, the very thing that drove the wedge between them in the first place.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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