Writer, writer, ignore the formatting rules at thy peril!

I put two spaces after a period when I type. Why? Well, the first and most important reason is that it's become the defacto standard, what agents and publishers expect in formatting.

Writer, writer, ignore the formatting rules at thy peril!

But really, it's because I learned to type on manual typewriters. For you innocent youngsters out there, I don't mean "keyboards that didn't accept speech-to-text", or "keypads with crappy word-completion predictive software". I mean one of these:

This one happens to be Cormac McCarthy's typewriter, but this style of Olivetti is similar to what I had. Manual platen advance, manual platen return arm, manual tab stop setting, etc. Was it a pain to use? No, it was a typewriter - jams, misaligned pages, bad margins, overruns, etc. were all just par for the course. I moved on to a series of electric typewriters, then ultimately to the glory of an IBM Selectric with a typeball. Jammed keys were a thing of the past!

I got to use a daisy-wheel typewriter for anything other than a few test pages because that was the sunset of the typewriter era. Today, alas, typewriters are a thing of the past.(1) My first experience with a word processing program was in high school. It was with a text entry monstrosity on the school's old DEC mainframe, accessed via a terminal, probably like the VT52, but I can't recall exactly. It only gave print output on the 22-inch wide scroll paper from the line printer - fine for programming & examining code, lousy for English prose. It was no threat to a typewriter.

However, when I got to college - with my portable Royal manual typewriter and a brand-new ribbon - I met the personal computer. One friend in the dorm had a Amiga, another a Wang, but the guys who had Apple computers were the kings. Easy to use, easy to type on, six different fonts to choose from and it interfaced perfectly with the single dot-matrix printer in the dorm. My university had computer labs full of Macs, with a timer and sign-up sheet for each. The labs also had side ghettos of DOS-based PCs, but only the grad students used those, for some reason. I was hooked on the computer, and never looked back to my old typewriter.

In time, I switched from Mac to MS-DOS, to Windows, to OS/2, then back to Windows. At one point, I flirted with Linux, but was never serious about it. Through it all, I put two spaces after every period, because that was what I'd been taught back in the two-drops-of-machine-oil-every-week days of the manual typewriter. Using two spaces is obsolete behavior, since the word processor won't jam if you type too fast, but I still do it.

Still, however hard it is to re-wire my brain's muscle memory reflexes, the time has come to make the change and get current. As Farhad Manjoo says(2):
The only reason today's teachers learned to use two spaces is because their teachers were in the grip of old-school technology. We would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that's what was popular back when they were in school. The same should go for typing. So, kids, if your teachers force you to use two spaces, send them a link to this article. Use this as your subject line: "If you type two spaces after a period, you're doing it wrong."
I realize that in this age of better fonts and appropriately spaced type, the extra space not only isn't necessary for clarity of reading, but is a waste of space on the page, adding unnecessary expense and heft to a book.

Like I said above, I put two spaces after a period when I type... but I'm trying to change that.

(1) I say "alas", but every now and then, I drag out my old Underwood and knock out a few paragraphs. Nostalgia is nice, but sorry, no. I prefer the computer.

(2) Note: I came across Manjoo's manifesto via John Scalzi. That post has a long list of comments and perspectives on this subject.

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  1. I took TWO touch typing classes (no art or music for me!) in high school and both instructors taught us to put two spaces after a period. Luckily, the space restraints of Twitter have helped me break the habit of typing an extra space. Usually. ;)

  2. I almost always have to take my final draft and do a search and replace for ". " to ". " My fingers are too old to learn new tricks. Isn't kinetic memory a bear?

  3. I do the search and replace trick myself. Can't seem to break the habit and when I try it slows down my typing speed.

  4. Nice little nostalgia trip, Tony. My grandmother gave me an electric portable when I was in high school. I took it to college and used it for years, until it wore out. I was a self-taught typist and never got into the two-space habit. As soon as I could, I switched to a PC for writing. My first was a Kaypro running the CP/M OS. The features I sought on a PC were priceless to me: the ability to easily edit and rewrite, mostly. I couldn't stand getting my fingers dirty with a carbon sheet, so almost never made copies of my work with the typewriter. So, multiple copies, no print degradation. The world of writing just got better and better.

  5. @Red: I had a year of typing back in grade school. Old Miss Razorback was a pain, but she drilled touch typing into me very effectively.

    @Janet: Come now, you're never too old to learn (or, in this case, un-learn).

    @Genevieve: I still do the search and replace, because I know I will have missed some.

    @Mike: Oh, it's a slam dunk for the computer. I think back to using eraser wheels, rubbing pencils and liquid paper to make corrections, using onion skin and carbon paper to make multiple copies, inserting corrections in pencil on finished pages and retyping any page with more than two errors... no, typewriters were outstanding technology for almost a century, but I'd never voluntarily go back.


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