Future Tense

Microsoft Word Finally Weighs In on the Great Spacing Debate

The verdict? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

Overhead shot of someone in a black sweater typing in Microsoft Word on a MacBook Air. Cellphones and a coffee mug are on the desk.
Romain V/Unsplash

“Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.” So began former Slate writer Farhad Manjoo’s infamous 2011 tirade. And while Manjoo’s impassioned case for the single space certainly snapped more than a few readers out of their two-spaced stupor, the Great Spacing Debate has continued over the past decade. Now, the 800-pound gorilla in the world of word processing has weighed in.

On Friday, the Verge reported that Microsoft has started updating Microsoft Word to flag two spaces after a period as an error. (The suggested correction goes without saying.) Microsoft is currently testing the update on the latest desktop version of Word and plans to roll out the change to everyone in the next few months. Luckily for double-spacers, the Editor feature in Word will allow users to dismiss the suggestion.

“We know this is a stylistic choice that may not be the preference for all writers, which is why we continue to test with users and enable these suggestions to be easily accepted, ignored, or flat out dismissed in Editor,” Kirk Gregersen, the partner director of program management at Microsoft, told the Verge.

But despite being easily dismissed, those pesky red squiggly lines are making typographical history. Word processors have long been agnostic on post-period spacing. (Microsoft Word’s major competitor, Google Docs, still accepts both.) Microsoft’s judicious application of the squiggles aligns word processing, at long last, with the major style guides, such as the Associated Press Stylebook, the Modern Language Association Style Manual, and the Chicago Manual of Style.

While most people now type with just one space, double spacing has proved difficult to nix—especially for those of the typewriter generation. Typewriters use monospace fonts, where every character occupies the same amount of horizontal space. That made it harder to see the spaces between sentences, so two spaces became the norm. However, as Manjoo explained, proportional fonts came to the fore in the 1970s—first with electric typewriters, then with computers—and rendered that extra space obsolete. Still, typewriter users passed that habit down, largely through high school classrooms, so it’s not just a generational quirk. (One of my high school teachers would dock points on papers for not double spacing, which still occasionally nags at the back of my mind as I type—and I’m a millennial.)

These days, the Great Spacing Debate centers on aesthetics and readability. While typographers tend to prefer the single space for this reason, a 2018 eye-tracking study appeared to finally lend some weight to the two-space argument, concluding that an extra space provides an easier reading experience and increases reading speed by 3 percent. But the study was soon picked apart: There were only 60 subjects (all college students), the extra space didn’t affect comprehension, and—perhaps most galling—the researchers used Courier New, the rare monospace font that’s still in use today. No further (and actually convincing) studies have been done.

Beauty and legibility aside, one space also requires less work, which, as Manjoo pointed out, “isn’t nothing.” At the very least, this means Microsoft is on the side of grammarians, typographers, and efficiency.

The emphasis on that last point particularly grates on Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin, Slate contributor, and dedicated double-spacer. “The idea that you should change your way of typing because it’s more ‘efficient’ to type one fewer character is profoundly depressing,” Ellenberg wrote me in an email. “It’s like microwaving things for 55 seconds instead of a minute to avoid wasted finger motion. If you’re rationing your time that severely, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about your life.” (Ellenberg also noted that LaTeX, a document preparation system that’s used widely in the sciences—and, that he believes, is “a higher authority”—puts extra space after a period in a document, whether you type it or not.*)

Ellenberg may be right about the space being an odd place to try to find a little extra efficiency. But since Slate, like most other magazines, follows the AP Stylebook, I’ve edited out the extra spaces in the above reply to make it, in Manjoo’s words, “simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing.” Sorry, Jordan!

*Correction, April 28, 2020: This article originally misstated that LaTeX puts a double space after a period. After a period, LaTeX puts extra space, which varies in size.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.