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Wordbird Tip: Don’t Double-Tap

Wordbird Tip: Don’t Double-Tap

Double-tapping is one of the more annoying things I encounter when I’m editing. This particular typographical sin is usually committed by people in an older demographic, those who were around when typewriters were still in use or those who witnessed the rise of the personal computer and the word processor.

The thing is, our technology has evolved. We don’t need to double tap anymore.

What Is Double-Tapping?

Double-tapping is hitting the space bar twice after you finish your sentence. In modern word processors, this results in two spaces after your period. You need to tap once in order to get the space after the period. If you don’t, Word or Pages or whatever program you happen to be using will tell you you’ve got a spelling error, as the final word of the previous sentence and the first word of the next are run together—that is, all the characters (including the period) are flush up against one another.

This can be tricky to see on the page. Editors and proofreaders will notice it relatively quickly. If you want to see for yourself, you can always turn on what’s called “invisibles”—the characters in word processors that show you where your spaces are, where soft breaks are, and where hard breaks are. (Pro tip: If you’re editing, always turn your invisibles on. I don’t work without them.)

Page showing invisible characters in Word.

Those weird, purple marks are your invisibles.

Things weren’t always this way. Once upon a time, you had to hit the space key not once, but twice in order to put the correct amount of space between a period and the next letter. Typewriters weren’t technologically savvy enough to realize you’d ended your sentence. Typically, the space key only inputted an en space, not an em space, which results in the start of the next sentence appearing flush against the period.

If you wanted the proper spacing, you had to do that shit yourself; the 1970s were manual.

The PC Revolution

The need to double-tap didn’t evaporate with the advent of the personal computer and the word processor. In fact, the QWERTY keyboard is modeled after the typewriter, and most word processors mimicked typewriter output in the early days. As programming became more sophisticated and the era of the manual typewriter faded into memory, typing itself has changed. For one thing, the keys of modern keyboards have a lot less resistance on them, making it much easier to push them. Touch-screens have further revolutionized our typing, predicting our next words and allowing us to drag-and-drop letters.

A stylized graphic of a typewriter.

Even now, the typewriter haunts us.

Word processors still operate much the same way typewriters did, however, so you still have to input the space after a period by yourself. Most of the first word-processing programs were rather unsophisticated, so not only were they not programmed to realize you needed a space after your period, they also didn’t have the “invisible” characters: spaces, hard returns, soft returns, and paragraph markers to show you where exactly your spaces were and what they looked like. Today, however, you can turn on invisibles and see exactly where your spaces and returns are.

What, then, of the double-space after a period?

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

It is wrong wrong wrong.

There are a few circles who still hold the double-tap correct, including the medical field and psychology. If you edit academic journals in these fields, the double-space after the period is held to be correct formatting. Papers formatted otherwise will likely be rejected or at least revised to include the double-space.

In most fields, however, it’s considered wrong. Given younger generations’ propensity to drop periods altogether, the double-tap may be going the way of the dinosaur, even in the most stodgy and traditional of fields. Eventually, we may see those fields clinging to this relic abandon it because no one does it.

There’s also the fact it’s wrong, no matter what some people seem to think.

I speak as someone who has worked with typesetters, proofreaders, and editors; and done some editing, proofreading, and typesetting myself. That second gap? Is incredibly ugly and noticeable on a typeset page. Every time I see one, it leaps up off the page and gouges out my eyes.

What’s Wrong with It?

It’s just a second space, I hear you saying. What’s so bad about it? Well, it’s stupid, for one thing.

Think about it. There is no other place where you’d put that emphatic double-space. You wouldn’t put two spaces between words; it would look strange and gappy. Just as you wouldn’t put a space between the last word of the sentence and period, or a space between each letter of a word. So the double-space after a period one of those things that just makes no bloody sense in terms of typography.

A typeset page.

There are a lot of typographically bad things on this page, but double spaces after periods aren’t one of them.

It looks bad. It’s extra work for the author, which, in turn, creates extra work for the editor, the proofreader, and the typesetter, who then have to set about stripping out all of those “extra” spaces. If you’re working on page proofs when that happens, each correction comes with an additional charge—and if you have double-tapped after every period, you’re going to run up the corrections bill removing them all. But they have to be taken out.

I take all of the ones I get out with an automated tool that runs through Word. Nonetheless, some slip through. Some get by the copy editor. They end up in the proofs. And some of them, yes, even end up in a book or a journal. But they shouldn’t be there. Ever. Typesetters have no reason for them, so no one else should either. They don’t enhance reading flow; they slow you down, often in an undesirable way.

Why Did It Ever Become a Thing?

As mentioned, typewriters typically set an en-space after a period. Hitting the space key twice would give you an em-space. You don’t always need an em-space, but some capital letters are wider, and can easily “eat up” the en-space. An em-space ensures that all capital letters have enough “room” to breathe after the period.

Modern word processors actually have kerning built right in, so they automatically adjust for the fact some capital letters will appear closer to the period, decreasing the perceived space. (Yes, reading is all about perceptions of space—the space is still the same, but the dimensions of letters can seem to reduce or increase the amount of space. A capital “M” has a much different width than a capital “N,” for example.)

In typesetting, the typesetter has much more freedom to play with the perceived space. We work with hairline spaces, something not available to those using a typewriter or even the average Word user today. We can increase the amount of space between characters by “a hair,” which often stops letters from bumping into each other. It can give them more room. A good example is writing “of World War II”: in some typefaces, with tighter kerning, the f and the W would touch. I would call for a hairspace to move them apart just enough that they didn’t touch.

The typewriter didn’t offer users this kind of nuance: It was either a space or no space. The solution is still to add more space, but typewriters didn’t have a “little bit of space” setting; you either added a whole en-space or no space at all. So to give all capitals the proper “breathing room,” you’d add two spaces instead of the requisite one.

The early days of computing saw the transfer of this habit.

Just Let It Die

The thing is we don’t need to double-tap today. Word processors have evolved enough to compensate for this sort of thing. Word even has some fairly advanced settings for kerning and spacing, although it’s nowhere near as complex as you can get with typesetting programs.

Nonetheless, there’s little to no real reason to include a double space after your period. There’s no typographical argument, nor any sort of grammatical argument for including a second space.

So please, ditch the double-space after a period. You can waste time and money in other ways.


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