I recently had the rare opportunity to sit down in front of the TV with the remote all to myself, and somehow I ended up on the Hallmark channel watching The Waltons. John-Boy Walton was a particular hero of mine as a child, pecking away at his typewriter in his quest to be a writer. As I watched him roll a sheet of paper into his manual typewriter and secure it with the bar, it hit me: the mechanics of writing are very different nowadays.
My first experience with typing was on my mom’s old portable typewriter, a Smith-Corona Super Silent manual with a dual-color ribbon, circa 1957. At that point in my writing career I was a hunt-and-peck typist of the first order, and a lot faster handwriting things, but I loved the sound that the keys made when I typed. When I got to high school and entered my first typing class, it was tough to unlearn the two-finger method of typing, and there were other rules to learn – indenting, punctuation, and spacing.
Contemporary business practices have moved writing from manual typewriters to electric typewriters to word processors to desktops to laptops and tablets. Computers have simplified the writing process considerably, allowing us to cut, copy, and paste whole chunks of text, and even correcting typos as they’re being made (most of the time). I will admit to missing the sound of the keys of a manual typewriter, but I don’t miss white-out and I don’t miss having to retype blocks of text in order to revise the flow of words. We even have new terminology for that flow of words: once we called it copy or text and now we call it content.
The question was put to me several months ago – do we use one space or two at the end of a sentence? To be honest, it was an issue to which I’d never given any thought. You see, when I when I took typing (or keyboarding, as it’s called in some school curriculums these days) in high school, I learned to do so on a manual typewriter. The mechanics of manual typing meant that the keys striking the paper were all of a uniform width, regardless if the letter in question was an l or an m. Known as a monospace typeface, type keys would strike the ribbon and print on the paper at an equal spacing, and the best way to signify the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next was to use two spaces. The widespread adoption of computers for the writing process meant that letters were automatically spaced according to their width by the programs being used. This space adjustment is known as kerning, and was once the exclusive realm of typesetters and graphic designers everywhere. Now that computers automatically snuggle the l in next to the m, spacing is less of an issue.
But what do the “experts” say? If you Google “one space or two after a period,” you’ll find a relatively hot debate on the subject. Book and newspaper editors decry the use of two spaces after the period as amateurish and unprofessional. Old-school writers, having learned to type on monospace typewriters, have a hard time adjusting to hitting the space bar only once at the end of a sentence. Individuals from all walks of life who have difficulty with the small type found in many printed materials appreciate the extra space, if they can get it. Most style manuals, however, dictate the use of one space. The only source that accepts two spaces as somewhat correct is the MLA Handbook, which if you’ve written any sort of research paper in college (as I did, many times), is the Holy Grail of style manuals for collegians.
Personally? I still hit the space bar twice when I’m writing. I spent my college years researching and writing many, many papers, and then spent a large portion of my career in the advertising field, writing copy which was then handed over to graphic designers who molded it to their needs. While I’ve tried to unlearn the two-space rule, I’ve found that it tends to hamstring my writing because I’m more focused on hitting the space bar once than I am on the actual content coming from my brain. When I get to the end of what I’ve written, the editing process includes a find/replace of all two spaces at the ends of my sentences. It’s a workable solution for me, and one of the wonderful aspects of using a computer.
I still miss that old Smith-Corona, though.