Michaeline: Itty, Bitty, Fiddling Things

A young boy greets a person made of commas, semi-colons and other punctuation.

Punctuation shows a friendly face, but watch out for that dagger by its waist. (Wikimedia Commons)

I hate writing about grammar and punctuation and capitalization and formatting things because it not only makes me intensely paranoid, but because I make mistakes. And sometimes I break the rules on purpose because I like the sound or the look or the clarity, but the casual reader doesn’t know if I’m making a mistake or if I’m being adventurous. Sometimes I don’t know.

That said, I have been doing some volunteer proofreading and have rediscovered a lot of rules. From time to time, I’d like to share them with you and hear what your take on the topic is.

Today, I’m going to talk about empty space. You may be well aware that in typeset matter, there is only one space, not two, between two sentences. I think the computers adjust for it automatically, and they were teaching this in my journalism school a couple of decades ago. I believe it was in the Associated Press Stylebook. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), the AP Stylebook still advocates that.

But for some reason, I never extrapolated that to colons. The Chicago Manual of Style* says, “(O)ne space, not two, should follow a colon.”

Spacing may not seem like a big deal, but apparently it is. Bloom County 2015 characters thought the issue was important enough to be a political platform. And 4,500 people took the time to comment on this strip. Maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal. But the fact of the matter is that if your future editor follows Chicago style, stripping out that extra space is going to be a hassle for someone.

Another problem I run into is the 2-em dash—that daring punctuation that is used to “set off an amplifying or explanatory element” (CMoS 6.82 Em dashes instead of commas, parentheses, or colons). I was trained with AP style, where there is a space before and after the em dash – like this. (To get this on your computer, you’d space-hyphen-hyphen-space.) I find em-dashes to be very useful in adding music and silence into my prose, and I use them a lot. I’m trying to train myself to get rid of the extra spaces, but I must admit, these new-to-me em dashes look crazy and crowded. I hope I can get used to them.

Space isn’t the last frontier, and you are allowed to go boldly (or to boldly go) where ever you want in matters of formatting. But it’s handy to know just which rules you are breaking so you can defend your artistic choices.

*The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, 6.7 Punctuation and space—one space or two?)

9 thoughts on “Michaeline: Itty, Bitty, Fiddling Things

  1. I prefer the double space at the end of the sentence. For typesetting, I can see that using only one could be helpful when trying to maximize the number of words on a page, but for readability the second space makes reading easier for me. I hadn’t been aware of the removal of the spaces before and after the em-dash, but then again I don’t use them very often. Makes me wonder what other style changes have been made that I’m not aware of.

    • In typing class (with real typewriters! hit a key, see the symbol appear on paper!), they did say double spaces. It’s my understanding that computers automatically put a double space after a period, so two spaces will show up as three spaces. I could be wrong. And, the computers today (as opposed to 20 years ago when I had to learn this) may now be programmed so that a single space or a double space after a period shows up a double space.

      Conjecture. Let’s try it!

      O.K., for my first trick, we will try the single space after the period. Alley-oop! What do we have? Single spaces?

      Next trick: double spaces. Oh, boy, it’s hard to remember to do that now! Can it make a difference? We’ll see.

      And just for reference, here are triple spaces. Alley-oop! Do they look any different, or are they automatically corrected? Only time and pressing the send button will tell!

      Now, let’s see what happens.

      • What do you think? To my eye, they all look like the same spacing.

        I suspect that a single space saves some wear and tear on the human body, but double spaces would allow a brief moment of reflection between sentences that may be helpful . . . . At any rate, it doesn’t look like it matters any more whether you use single or double spacing, at least on WordPress.

        • It matters like crazy in Word, which I am forced to use for my day job. Double spacing is my nemesis! I get lots of content from multiple writers (not writers by profession – usually they are engineers, scientists, etc.) that has to be coalesced into a single, cohesive document, and I get a mix (people over a certain age seem to use the double space, those under that age use the single). Single spacing is in the style guide of every company for which I’ve worked or consulted over the past 15+ years, so I think that’s definitely become the standard. Which means we have to correct double spacing to single. For QC purposes, we never do anything globally to a document, so we have to do the find and replace one by one, which causes much pulling out of hair and gnashing of teeth among my tech editors.

        • I do remember some of the copyeditors I worked with being driven to distraction by two spaces. Thank you for letting us know about the current style standards–many companies and even many publishers (especially magazines) have their own style standards and a special style sheet that tells you what’s right for their publications.

          If you’ve got a great story, nobody’s going to reject it because of some spaces. But . . . there’s no need to annoy your editors and copyeditors, right?

  2. Don’t worry, it’s easy to strip out the second space if you use it and want to get it out of your manuscript before you submit it – just do a search and replace in word, replacing two spaces with a single space. I know this because I learnt to type on a manual typewriter and can’t rid myself of the habit of doing a double space after a full stop.

    • What did we do before proper word-processing programs? I guess we hoped the typesetters knew what they were doing (-:.

      It took me months to train myself out of the double space after a period. Months. And I had to because it was a class, and computers weren’t smart enough yet (although, they may have had the search and replace function by then).

      I don’t know how many months it’s going to take me to stop putting spaces around the em-dash. And I’m trying to pick up the Oxford comma (after diligently learning and using for decades the AP style of serial commas). Ugh. If I go insane, you can blame the stylebooks.

        • You’re right; I’m being sloppy. AP (Associated Press) style is for no serial comma: the rabbit, the dog and the cat. Oxford and serial commas (that is to say, the rabbit, the dog, and the cat) are the same.

          And I’ve seen ambiguity with both styles (the internet is hilarious), so I think the important thing is to pick the style your future editors and publishers will use. And if that comma really does make things ambiguous by its placement or removal, rewrite the damn thing.

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