Words do matter, and so does correct punctuation

The decline and fall of spelling, grammar, punctuation, meaning and usage in America is reaching epidemic proportions. Here’s one way to help.

Time to end the tyranny of double-spacing after periods. Berkeley Breathed's take. (Via the cartoonist's Facebook page)

WASHINGTON, September 26, 2015 – If the two cartoon panels above caught your attention, the rest of this “Bloom County” strip, reproduced below, will fill in the rest of the story:

For once and for all we're ending this vicious controversy over what comes after a period in today's column. (Cartoon via Berkeley Breathed's Facebook page.)
For once and for all we’re ending this vicious controversy over what comes after a period in today’s column. (Cartoon via Berkeley Breathed’s Facebook page.)

This particular strip, part of the revived “Bloom County” now appearing (or re-appearing) on the Facebook pages of writer/cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, illustrates just one aspect of the increasingly irritating tendency in this country to go back to casual Shakespearean and early American attitudes toward spelling, grammar, punctuation, meaning and usage. Or at least the first three.

Either the finer points of our written English language are being completely ignored or forgotten or, worse, are no longer even being taught with any sort of rigor in America’s grade, secondary and college English classes, perhaps having been eclipsed in importance with gender and race-based curricular items that have already proved to be of dubious value.

In any event, the sloppiness and decline in the correctness and quality of written communication is appalling. In this particular strip, however, Breathed is addressing one of the more esoteric areas that mark this decline: the tendency of writers, particularly on the web, to insert not one but two spaces after each period or other end-stop punctuation.

In short, this isn’t the right way to do it any more, and hasn’t been the right way to do it since, oh, perhaps the mid-1980s or even earlier. But possibly only those born before, say, 1965 are likely to know the reason why this is so.

Back in the day when the notion of owning a “personal computer” would have been regarded as absurd and perhaps delusional, when writers, students, teachers, budding journalists and the like learned the necessary art of touch typing, they did so on machines like the classic Royal Office manual typewriter.

Photo of the old Royal Office Manual Typewriter once used (extensively) by the San Francisco Chronicle's longtime writer Herb Caen. (Public domain image)
Photo of the old Royal Office Manual Typewriter once used (extensively) by the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime writer Herb Caen. (Public domain image)

In those thrilling days of yesteryear when humans like this writer possessed still-fresh memories of the Jurassic Era, written communication − when not expressed by means of a fountain pen or pencil applied to a sheet of paper − was delivered by means of typewritten letters, spreadsheets, memos and the like. Such communications were created by relatively skilled human beings using large, sturdy, amazingly heavy typewriters like the Royal, upon which an author’s or secretary’s flying fingers would punch out letters, one by one, to create a legible, typescript document.

If one needed several copies of said document in those pre-Xerox days, one inserted one or more carbon sheets and (often) colored copy sheets beneath the original that was being typed, and punched those manual keys extra-hard to make sure the letters went through to the last carbon copy.

You generally learned this skill in high school, a skill which, at the time, was generally the province of high school girls whose career aspirations went only as far as landing a secretarial job after graduation that would pay her well enough to keep her going until she got a suitable marriage proposal.

This male writer, however, was made to learn what was then called “touch typing” in an all-male Jesuit college prep school. In the context of the times, this seemed like a social non-starter. However, the logic was profound. College kids would likely be required to punch out reams of term papers, and professors looked far more kindly on typescripts they could read and grade rather than the scribbled, illegible messes many less fortunate students still employed at the time.

Those old office manuals (and their college student counterparts, which were smaller and lighter) generally offered one basic typeface—Courier—and that was all. Flat, relatively uniform and what was (and still is) called “monospaced,” the Courier typeface (which is the correct word, BTW, not “font”) was generally 10- or 12-point in size and easy to read, save for at least one peculiarity.

Since Courier was monospaced, which essentially means that each letter takes up about the same amount of physical space on the paper, it was often difficult for readers with less-than-perfect eyesight to see where a sentence would end and where the next would begin. That’s why, in those old touch-typing classes, we were all taught to hit the spacebar twice (i.e., type two spaces) after each period or other end stop before beginning the next sentence, with a capital letter, of course. It was a purely visual thing, not a hard and fast rule, but a tradition.

Fast-forward a bit to early word processors and then to early WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) computers and personal computers where the coding (whether visible or not) produced final documents that looked like they were typeset, which is the way most books and newspapers are printed.

Typeset documents were always set in those days via hugely expensive commercial machines like the Linotype that made use, not of Courier, but of more sophisticated, attractive and even more readable typefaces like the still classic Times Roman, originated at the behest of its namesake, the New York Times.

Unlike the monospaced Courier, these typefaces made use of “proportional” spacing, a technique that made use of the simple fact that in and of itself, the letter “i” for example, takes up less physical space than the letter “q.” Thus, in classic typesetting, you could squeeze into the “i’s” physical turf a bit on each side, giving a bit more of that space to the wider letter, creating a more visually uniform line on the page.

One of many aftereffects of proportionally-spaced typefaces was the fact that now you could clearly see those periods and where those sentences actually ended. So, in typesetting, putting in that extra space after the period was no longer necessary from a visual standpoint. You could easily see where a typeset sentence ended without the crutch of that extra space.

Proportional spacing, as well as eliminating that dratted extra space after the period, actually gave newspapers and the like more space on the page for words, given how many dozens of pages or more those daily newspapers ran. This, in turn, saved newsprint and/or paper costs while actually delivering a more readable and feature rich product to the customer.

With the advent of WYSIWYG, which first appeared on giant workstations and notably on the very first Apple Macintosh computer, the power of the computer itself enabled a user to take advantage of the increasing variety of typefaces available on the new medium—all of which, except for good, old reliable Courier, were proportionally spaced, not monospaced.

Courier survived, and is still perfectly useful in space restricted documents where monospacing still seems to be more legible. In addition, Matt Drudge notably uses another monospaced typeface on his well-traveled site, “The Drudge Report”—probably American Typewriter—to conjure up that romantic old “Front Page,” Walter Winchell era when most reporters were “ink-stained wretches” cranking out their initial reports either in longhand on notebooks, or hunting and pecking their way on one of those old Royal office manuals.

But most writers, authors, journalists, secretaries and hacks now write their stuff on computers using a proportionally spaced typeface. Which gets us back to those two spaces after the period. Why the hell do writers still punch the damned things in when they waste time, space, and their editors’ patience?

When editors copy edit a piece that’s just been sent in, one of the first things they have to do, according to style, is pull out all those stupid double spaces. They look horsey on the page, since they are, after all, occurring in proportionally-spaced typefaces. Worse, they are simply no longer needed and haven’t been since at least the mid-1980s. That’s about 30 years ago and counting.

If you’re currently using an iPhone, folks, why in the Sam Hill are you still typing documents on your computer that have the look and feel of the 1960s? Habit, probably. If you learned any kind of touch-typing at all, most of you of a certain age probably learned how to do it back in that Royal office manual era, a time that even extended into the next era when electric typewriters became the next big thing. That’s because those latest-and-greatest new machines still used those monospaced typefaces, however.

Engineering sketch of early QWERTY keyboard, circa 1878. (Public domain)
Engineering sketch of early QWERTY keyboard, circa 1878. (Public domain)

Once proportional type and word processing became the order of the day, most monospaced typefaces and all that double-spacing quickly went the way of Tyrannosaurus rex. Yet people still punch in those two spaces by habit. It’s rote, muscle memory. They learned it that way, along with the QWERTY keyboard which we all learned and still learn because, as Tevye once sang, it’s “Tradition.” Those keyboards remained the same as always whether they’re attached, wirelessly or otherwise, to our computers or show up as virtual keypads on our handheld devices.

Since we all still use these allegedly inefficient QWERTY keyboards with our computers and handheld devices, most of us who’ve learned what used to be called “touch typing” on those ancient QWERTY keyboards (or modern QWERTY computer keyboards) will only abandon them if you pry them from our cold, dead hands. Same reason as double-spacing after that period: Muscle memory. Who, having once learned touch typing on the QWERTY keyboard, wants to learn it all over again because some computer geek says what you learned is not efficient?

Diagram of contemporary U.S. computer version of QWERTY keyboard, showing additional function keys on top row plus occasional mod keys elsewhere depending on model. No room for double spacing after periods here. (Via Wikipedia)
Diagram of contemporary U.S. computer version of QWERTY keyboard, showing additional function keys on top row plus occasional mod keys elsewhere depending on model. No room for double spacing after periods here. (Via Wikipedia)

But getting back on-topic, not double-spacing after a period doesn’t involve such a drastic resolution. If you’re still doing it, save yourself some time, or at least a little time. Save your editor (if you have one) some time. Be with it, up-to-date and trendy at absolutely no extra cost to you. Just type a single space after that period and then keep going. Forget that effing second space and the world will soon become a kinder, gentler and simpler place. It’s the deal of the century.

Trust me on this. And don’t get me going on the improper use of “it’s,” the scandalous and cowardly use of “their” as a singular possessive pronoun, the use of “impact” as a verb, and other acts of literary blasphemy that we’ll deal with in separate harangues at a later date.

BTW, if you want to see Berkeley Breathed’s latest riff on double-spacing, check out his latest full-length, full color “Sunday comic” right here.

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