Two Spaces After a Period? Who Cares?

Letters on a keyboard

When I first started law firm life, several colleagues dropped by my office to ask my opinion on key issues: Did I prefer one space or two after a period? And, what were my feelings on split infinitives? How about justifying versus non-justifying text? I think my grammar and style preferences generally disappoint people in all camps.

Follow the partner’s rules

I believe in adhering to the grammar and style preferences of the person for whom you are working. If the lead partner on a case likes one space between sentences, I’m a one-space gal. Two spaces? Not a problem. Just tell me how many pieces of flair to wear, and I will do my duty.

My philosophy in this respect began on the playground: I was always a fan of four square in elementary school. In four square, you bounce a rubber ball to advance through squares until you achieve the coveted position of “first square.” Once you make first square, you have the power to create customized rules like “no cherry bombs,” or “all players must speak in pig latin.” In fifth grade, getting to the first square was the bee’s knees—an honor that came with real power.

I began to link my four square experience to the legal profession during my clerkship. When working for a federal judge, there is no doubt as to who gets to make the rules. I mean—one of us was appointed by the President and one of us wasn’t. I have no problem putting the POTUS appointee in the first square.   

In a law firm, things can get a little bit more ambiguous because there are multiple partners with multiple preferences. People begin looking around for an objective answer—there must be “correct” rules of grammar. What does the Chicago Manual say? How about Strunk & White? Articles espousing the benefits of one space over two pop up in our office about once a year, create a brief commotion, and then disappear until Slate or the Atlantic decides it’s time to drag the subject out again for another go.

But what do I think?

For every current rule of grammar and style, a good researcher can find an example of an author’s rejection of the rule to excellent effect. You prefer short, pity sentences, but would you condemn Faulkner? You say two spaces after a sentence slows the reader down? I have no trouble flying through my original type version of Pride and Prejudice (nor did I have any trouble reading the entire 1950s Nancy Drew series at a record pace in fifth grade).

But suppose my time in the first square does come some day? What will I choose? I’ll probably choose one space between sentences because it seems to be the new normal. I never want to distract a reader with a stylistic choice that jars (for the same reason that I wear a black or blue suit to court so that I won’t distract the judge from my argument with an unusual fashion choice.)

Reject Rules to Good Effect

That said, in writing, sometimes we do want to jar a reader (although not likely with the number of spaces between sentences). I generally eschew italics and bold print, but occasionally it feels appropriate. I strive for Hemmingway-esque sentences, but can refuse to edit a beautiful long sentence that pleases me. My overall philosophy? I never want to be so wedded to a rule of grammar or style that I can’t relax and adjust when it feels right or appropriate to do so. I aim for my writing to be clear and fun to read. So what do I think of grammar rules? They’re more like guidelines.

(image: Early Education Concept with Keyboard and Letters from Shutterstock)

, ,

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    I have no trouble flying through my original type version of Pride and Prejudice (nor did I have any trouble reading the entire 1950s Nancy Drew series at a record pace in fifth grade).

    In fairness, I doubt these were set with two spaces between sentences. Two spaces has never been common in professional publishing.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      I’m with Sam here. Two spaces is a relic of set-width limitations of typewriters. Professionally set text is almost always proportionally spaced.

      • Mike

        The conventional wisdom about two spaces being a relic caused by typewriters is simply not correct.

        “…centuries of typesetters and printers believed that a wider space was necessary after a period, particularly in the English-speaking world. It was the standard since at least the time that William Caslon created the first English typeface in the early 1700s (and part of a tradition that went back further), and it was not seriously questioned among English or American typesetters until the 1920s or so.”

        http://www.heracliteanriver.com/?p=324

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/sybildunlop/ Sybil Dunlop

    I will count tonight and provide an update.

  • http://www.ginsbergshulman.com/ David Shulman

    Please check every newspaper article, book, magazine, etc., in your possession and count the number of spaces after a period. It’s one.

    Irregardless, does you be caring about weather it ain’t right to used improper spelling, grammar, word usages, etc.?

    Spaces after a period are the same thing.

    • Sybil Dunlop

      David – I’m not against the one-space rule. Indeed, I recognize it is the norm. I am, however, sometimes guilty of improper spelling.

  • Erin in Ohio

    Can we please get to the *really* important legal issues and discuss whether an Oxford comma is appropriate? (FWIW, I vote “yes!”)

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Done. And yes.

    • http://BryanGriffith.com Bryan M. Griffith, J.D.

      I generally err on less is more, but over time I have become convinced the oxford comma adds necessary clarity in important situations. Legislation, contracts, and legal briefs should not sacrifice clarity for economy or style.

    • http://www.thecontractsguy.net Brian Rogers

      Yes!

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

    I favor clarity in context. Meaning, use commas liberally, in an effort to be understood, but don’t worry too much that you forgot one. In copywriting, the goal is to sell. Some copywriters purposely leave spelling errors in their content—it shows they’re human, for one thing—and it also indicates a preference for selling, as opposed to winning a Pulitzer. On the other hand, in legal writing, for example, a spelling error might seriously undermine credibility. So, clarity in context.

    Read this excellent NYT article to see what I mean when I say perfection is not everything in writing. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/magazine/jon-rimmerman-garagiste.html?

  • http://BryanGriffith.com Bryan M. Griffith, J.D.

    The main reason I have come to dislike two spaces is that when multiple parties are editing one document it is difficult to make the switch between the two options. And if you are pasting in paragraphs from other documents, you cannot control whether they have one space or two.

    So, it is then easy to remove two spaces to make them all single spaces, but it is more difficult to find-and-replace single spaces to make them two. Sentences don’t always end in a period, but sometimes end in a parenthisis, ), and not all period-space combos are at the end of a sentence, such as in citation or abbreviation, such as “Aff. of Smith 3″.

    So, I have a firm rule that a single space is the only option and I correct all documents that come across my screen.

    Great topic!

  • http://BryanGriffith.com Bryan M. Griffith, J.D.

    One more pet peeve…. period inside parenthesis or outside?

    I opt for clarity here which generally leads me to go outside the parenthesis, but not always. The generally accepted rule is the period always goes inside.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I think the generally-accepted rule is that it depends on whether the parenthetical is part of a sentence, or a sentence of its own. So both of these would be correct.

      The quick brown fox jumped (over the lazy dog).
      (The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.)

      This is the rule I follow, anyway.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      (Complete sentences that stand on their own get periods inside the parenthesis.)

      But you go outside the sentence (when you want to use parenthesis to illustrate an additional point, for example).

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

      Why do you sign your name with J.D.?

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        When I see that, I assume the person has graduated from law school, but does not have a license to practice law. I also assume they are prone to puffery.

        • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Dr. A. Jordan Rushie, Esq., Attorney and Counselor at Law, J.D., B.A., H.S.D. (high school diploma)

          Yah. Me too.

      • http://BryanGriffith.com Bryan M. Griffith, J.D.

        Jordan,

        Sam’s assumption is wrong, though I have had one other highly unprofessional attorney accuse me of practicing without a license because I listed my credentials in an e-mail. So he is not alone in that assumption, though I have no idea where it developed.

        It is personal preference. The history of the term Esquire (Esq.) has nothing to do with the practice of law and its use here in America is about marketing our alleged superiority. I find that distasteful, arrogant, and elitist. The Ohio Supreme Court did not grant me an Esquire, but in fact the license on my wall says “counselor and attorney at law”. I also cannot hear esquire and not think about the unpleasant experience watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. So, I avoid using “Esq.”

        However, there should not be anything offensive about using J.D. We nearly all have a Juris Doctor, and it is that education that I value and market. I also grew up in an over-educated family with lots of various degrees and so I am accustomed to seeing and using credentials, such as M.D., D.V.M., M.B.A. And this is also closely related to an ongoing dispute with my PhD wife over the use of the term “doctor”. See NJ opinion: http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/ethics/acpe/acp461_1.html

        This has been an ongoing debate and differs significantly in different legal markets. See the following additional resources.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esquire
        http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/solosez/esq_2005_05.authcheckdam.pdf
        http://roberthickey.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/when-does-a-law-professor-use-esq-when-does-a-law-professor-use-jd/

        But, I suppose since I am at odds with Emily Post most of you can ignore me.
        http://www.emilypost.com/communication-and-technology/social-names-and-titles/774-professional-titles

        Sam, is that sufficiently pufferied for you?

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          I still think it looks dumb.

          • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

            It does. If you’re a lawyer, great, congratulations.

            No need for Esq, JD, or other nonsense unless you’re trying to prove how awesome you are.

            • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

              Also, if you have a PhD (not an MD or DO) and make people call you doctor, you’re a schmuck.

        • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

          Ok. If it makes you feel important, more power to ya I guess.

        • Chris Bradley

          I’m with Bryan, J.D. Frankly, I don’t give a sh*t how he wants to title his name. If it’s “cool” not to use J.D., and rock an unadorned name like all the other cool kids, that’s fine, but it strikes me as a sort of “lawyer guilt” thing.

  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

    At this point I just do whatever Leo tells me to do, since he is the boss.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      Get back to work, slave.

  • D.W. Barron

    1. Faulkner would have been a lousy legal writer.

    2. There is a right way and a wrong way to format text. Anything other than one space after a period is the wrong way. http://www.typographyforlawyers.com/?page_id=1325

    3. That being said, I have to agree with Dunlop – if the partner wants it done wrong, it’s not wrong.

  • http://www.lexcomm.us betty kropf

    In these digital times, the publishing industry is a stickler for using one space for practical reasons only: Two spaces messes up the flow of copy.

  • http://appealslawyer.net/ Joshua Gordon

    The reason you use just one space after a period is that you avoid a distracting white line that can form itself on a page that has two spaces after each period. There’s a name for what I’m talking about, which I have forgotten, but it is discussed in the typography for lawyers book.