Graphic design notes #1: Full stop. Double space

by Katya


I must have removed millions of double spaces in my time. Graphic design often involves working with large amounts of copy – usually received in Word format – which is flowed into a design program and then reformatted. Part of this process involves a ‘find and change’ in order to remove the extra spaces.

Removing the double spaces after full stops signals, for many a designer, a key difference between a manuscript and typeset text. But why do we do this? For me, it’s not so much because I want the block of text I’m working with to appear as a solid, discrete object and not riddled with holes (although that is true to an extent). It’s more that I want to help the reader to consume information smoothly and easily without distraction from the staccato interruptions of uneven spaces between words and sentences.

It’s not quite clear how or when they emerged as convention but double spaces after full stops were certainly specified as standard in European and American style guides from the eighteenth until the late twentieth centuries (with the exception for some reason of France).

One possible historical reason for the end of sentence double space is as a way of distinguishing from spaces used after the full stops applied to abbreviations and initials. Formal terms of address such as ‘mister’ were still common in the UK until relatively recently. Combined with the fact that the historic convention was to use full stops after abbreviations (such as Mr.) as well as after initials, this created much potential for confusion in the reader (as shown in the illustration), which the double space would help alleviate.

DSC_4941Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Siegfried Sassoon, published by Faber & Gwyer, London (1928)

In the UK in the 1950s, wide sentence spacing was progressively abandoned by the printing industry in favour of 1 or 1.5 spaces (an ‘en quad’). The typewriter, however, remained restricted to mono-spaced letterforms – only allowing for one space or two – so the continuation of the convention beyond the 1950s is in part due to the capacity of the widely available technology – the typewriter – and in part due to user choice.

What is interesting about all this is that it illuminates the complex web of relationships between people, industries and technology over time. Despite the fact that in one industry the typesetter (or designer) moved away from the use of the double space in the 1950s, in another realm the writer (or transcriber) continued to adhere to a familiar convention for more than half a century. To this day the double space is perpetuated by people who, although they may well be using the latest technology, are also bound in a human chain of education and knowledge to generations that far precede it.

There’s no doubt that technological change has a huge impact on the way we consume information – punctuation included – but the pace of change is moderated by the habits and behaviours of the people who use the technology. It’s interesting to speculate on what the longer term impact of html ­ – and the fact it can’t read double spaces – will be. Since the 1990s we’ve become accustomed to reading website and email addresses with their full stops and no space. Perhaps our insistence on any space at all between sentences is just a habit that will one day die out.