Two Spaces After a Period? Who Cares?

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)


  1. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    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.

    • Avatar Leo M. says:

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

      • Avatar Mike says:

        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.”

  2. Avatar Sybil D. says:

    I will count tonight and provide an update.

  3. 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.

  4. Avatar Erin in Ohio says:

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

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

  9. Avatar D.W. Barron says:

    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.

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

  10. Avatar betty kropf says:

    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.

  11. Avatar Joshua Gordon says:

    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.

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