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Writing Tip: January 18, 2003

One or Two Spaces after a Period?

Those of us who use word processing software are no longer typists but typographers. While our typewriter keyboards limited our capabilities in creating text, our word processors allow us to do what professional typesetters have been doing for centuries. Consequently, many of the rules we learned as typists do not apply in the world of word processing.

Here are a few rules of typography (word processing) that differ from those we learned to use for the typewriter:

(A) Use one space after all punctuation, including periods, question marks, exclamation points, and colons. Putting two spaces after these marks of punctuation is a convention that evolved because typewriters were equipped only with monospaced fonts, which made it difficult to see where sentences ended. Professional typographers have always used only one space because they use proportionally spaced fonts, which do not require the extra spaces in order for a series of sentences to be readable. Because most of the fonts in today's word processing software programs are proportional, in other words, we do not need to put an additional space after end punctuation or colons when we use our computers to compose.

(B) Use em dashes and en dashes where appropriate instead of hyphens. (For an explanation of situations in which the en dash and em dash are appropriate, see our recent tip on this subject in our tip archive.)

(C) Use typographer's quotation marks. Typographer's quotes--the turned, or "curly," quotation marks--are actually quite different from straight quotes, which were all that our old typewriters could muster. Straight quotes should be used only as symbols to denote minutes, seconds, feet, and inches--and then, only in charts, tables, and the like. In professional writing, we never use such symbols in running text (i.e., the regular paragraph text of a document).

Most word processing software is already programmed to use these "smart quotes," as they are called. We must remember, however, to convert back to straight quotes to indicate seconds and inches (double straight quotes) and minutes and feet (single straight quotes) in charts and tables.

(D) Use italics, not underlining, for such purposes as indicating the titles of works that stand alone and emphasizing words in running text. Because our typewriters could not italicize, we underlined instead. Now we reserve underlining for those situations in which we cannot use italics, such as when we are writing in longhand or using the old-fashioned typewriter. (For guidance about when to use italics and when to use quotation marks with titles, see our tip on the titles of works at .)

(E) Avoid using the space bar to indent a paragraph or to move text (say, for example, to center it). Word processing software offers a host of formatting options, including tab options, centering, right and left justification, and columns. When we use manual spacing rather than formatting the text using these handy functions, we create two problems: our text will never be evenly aligned, and our work will be made more difficult if we ever want to revise the text in any way.

These are just a few basic rules of typography. A quick search of the Internet will yield a wealth of additional information on the subject--including historical perspectives on the one-space-versus-two-after-colons-and-periods issue. Most style manuals also include sections on typography, as do many writing handbooks.

Copyright 2003 Get It Write

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