Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spacing out on grammar rules

About six years ago, I had an editor from Chicago send me an email asking me to stop using two spaces after my periods when submitting my columns to his professional journal. In a “voice” dripping with superiority, I sent him a reply that said I was following the grammar rule for proper spacing after a period, which is to put two spaces, thank you very much.

He responded (smugly I might add) that no, in fact I was wrong. It turned out that somewhere between the time that I had finished college up until that very moment the rules had changed. I grabbed my copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of sorts for word geeks like myself, and looked it up. And the world as I knew it came crashing down around my keyboard.

All that I had been taught and held true was called into question. Do I still capitalize the first word in each sentence? Are double negatives now okay? Is grammar as we know it going to H-E-DOUBLE HOCKEY STICKS in a handbasket? And is handbasket one word or two?

Somewhere my 9th grade English teacher Sister Clair is rolling her eyes (or in her grave, depending on her current location – I haven’t kept up with her). I envisioned grammarians running amok through the university halls, gnashing their teeth at the senselessness of it all.

But then the editor graciously pointed out that it wasn’t that big of a deal. He just wanted me to know so I could make it a little easier on him. Turns out he had been deleting spaces after every sentence I had sent him for months. Of course I made the change and have adopted the single space rule, to the point that two spaces look weird to me now. As one writer friend put it, “It looks like you could sail a boat between those two sentences.” Yeah, we tend to exaggerate a bit, but I get his point.

I have friends (mostly my age or older) who still swear by the double space rule, and really, if their livelihood doesn’t depend on it who am I to judge? But the hard, cold truth is that it really is only one space.

Exhibit A: Associated Press Stylebook is as direct and simple as possible: “Use a single space after a period at the end of a sentence.”

Exhibit B: Grammar Girl. For a writer, what’s the next-best thing to a hard and fast grammar rule? A woman who writes, blogs and creates podcasts about grammar rules, complete with a cool superhero name – Grammar Girl. I’m not sure if she wears a cape, but I like to imagine that she does. For me and my word nerd friends, she’s the bomb. And Grammar Girl’s verdict echoes the AP Stylebook: One space after a period. She goes on to say, “I know it's a hard habit to break if you were trained to use two spaces, but if you can, give one space a try.”

Exhibit C: A little background from Wikipedia: “Double space (English Spacing). This convention stems from the use of the monospaced font on typewriters. If the ribbon were too dry the visibility of the period would be reduced significantly. Adding two spaces after the period ensured that the reader would know where the end of the sentence was if the period didn’t strike properly. This historical convention was carried on by tradition until it was replaced by the single space convention in published print and digital media today.”

So, let me get this straight. It all boils down to the fact that I’m … old? And I used to write my college term papers on a typewriter? With correction tape?

Oh, I am not liking this. Not one little bit. But it doesn’t really matter what I think about it, because like this grammar rule, it is what it is. Besides, check this out. Doesn’t it look like you could sail a boat through that last space?

Eileen Burmeister lives, works and single spaces in Roseburg. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com.

4 comments:

  1. I am still not okay with single spacing after a sentence. I too am old. Do we still double space after the state and zip code in an address? Probably not, I'm guessing. It's a sad, sad state of affairs. I want my typewriter back.

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  2. Great column, E. (Notice the two spaces after the period.)

    I will go to my grave double spacing. Old habits die hard. I bet this website will correct my "errors" and squish my sentences up.

    Jules

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  3. To quote the estimable Dr. Peter Venkman, on a related topic: "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!"

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  4. You say hysteria, I say brouhaha. (By the way, there should be a space BEFORE the ellipsis and after - as you did correctly.) Now I'm just getting obnoxious, no?

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