The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 29, 2011

Two-Spacer’s Lament

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,punctuation — amba12 @ 2:54 am

Long time no post, but when I heard rumors of Farhad Manjoo’s Slate diatribe against “the two-space error,” I knew I would have to track it down and respond.

Farhad, two spaces after a colon or period is not an error.  It is a custom, a gracious custom that is passing away, like ironed handkerchiefs and hat-doffing and saying “You’re welcome” instead of “No problem” and starting a business letter to a total stranger “Dear Miss Welty” instead of “Hi Eudora.”  I freely grant you that two spaces after a colon or period is an anachronism.  I grant you that it is quaint.  But that is different from an error.  Farhad, you are so presentist. G.K. Chesterton would even say you are undemocratic.

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. . . . Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it . . . along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. . . . Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

But two-spacing is not that venerable a tradition.  As Manjoo points out, it was an accommodation to the peculiarities of a late-nineteenth-century invention that dominated the first half of the twentieth:  the manual typewriter.  Because typewriters used “monospaced” type, granting the same width of space — defined by a keyhead — to both fat and skinny letters, the spacing in a line looked spotty, and it was harder to tell where sentences ended.  Now that our computers automatically insert proportional spacing, as typesetters do, there is no need for two-spacing. The typewriter remains an object of some nostalgia — some living writers can only write on them (the persnickety pace and companionable clackety-clack suit their muse), some people even play music on them, and the funky font Courier pays tribute to them — but it is, on the face of it, odd that the custom of two-spacing should have a momentum that propels it beyond the technology that launched it.  Isn’t this just mental inertia?

I don’t think so.  Two spaces after a period or colon represents, to me, a pause to take a breath.  In a time when there seems to be less and less time, it is an insistence on a tiny space of time, if not around then within the high-pressure flow of information — a pinprick, a pore, just enough to keep an air-breathing animal from drowning in viscous data.  Two spaces give a stubbornly stately, unhurried rhythm to the succession of sentences and clauses, more like moseying musing than the jabber of a teenager on T-Mobile, more like a promenade or paseo than a bullet train.

Punctuation is part of the musical notation of language — something I learned, not from anyone of G.K. Chesterton’s vintage, but from the Beat poets.  They laid out their words like a musical score on the page, showing the reader where to rush ahead like rapids, where to hesitate tactfully, where to take a breath like a clarinetist so that the next arc of notes might be unbroken.  Of course a period or colon by itself means “take a longer pause,” but to us two-spacers there’s something pleasing about seeing that pause on the page, in a small way making a visual image of the rhythms of thought.

I have a hunch that the real reason two spaces are not just unnecessary, but to be damned, is that they trip up computers.  And computers are our masters now.  Especially your generation, Farhad.  God forbid you inconvenience a computer.  It might (gasp!) slow down.

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