Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Writing As Medium: That Extra Space 

A raging debate on our faculty-side email server this week about, of all things, whether student writing should contain one or two spaces after a period.

I'm happy to see the question come up -- the Writing Across the Curriculum movement is strong here, and as a departmental rep to the writing leadership group this kind of niggly discussion is exactly what we had hoped would emerge from a renewed mandate. But though I have finally come to terms with blogger's insistence on eliding my post-sentence two-spacing into one, I was not convinced by today's foray from school webmaster Craig, who, in responding to the "1 or 2 spaces" question, offered the following historical defense:
ONE! The double space made it easier to read when people used typewriters with monospaced characters (where every character, whether an i or a w, takes up the same amount of space). With proportional spaced characters (almost all computer fonts) one space is used. Look at any newspaper, book, or magazine as evidence of single spacing in proportional characters fonts.

Once you get used to this rule, double space after a punctuation really looks wrong.

I appreciate the media context Craig brought to the discussion. But done properly, media ergonomics -- what Postman might call media ecology, though this sort of position is where he and I begin to differ -- demands questions of real usage in context, too, without which real consideration of genuine historical tool and technology evolution can be misleading.

So here's a different opinion from a "media across the curriculum" perspective. (Yes, writing is a medium.)

Post-period spaces as media

While historically "rules" for punctuation and spacing evolve because of the exact pressures that Craig describes, the challenge of using this practical consideration to determine correct usage is that usage often lingers residually in our constantly-evolving writing tools long after the forces which required that usage are made moot. In fact, some standards currently go against practical considerations -- tradition and agreed-upon usage, in other words, quite often trump the practical pressures which Craig uses to determine the standard currently under examination.

The usual Dvorak superiority myth used to decry the current arrangement of letters on a standard keyboard is one such example -- though there is no longer any danger of our typewriter getting jammed if we were able to type faster even if this were true, explorations of the myth of Dvorak superiority continue to conclude that the Qwerty key arrangement, though relatively effective, is not necessarily the absolute best arrangement of keys to make typing as smooth a process as it possibly could be. But doing the research to figure out which key arrangement would be absolutely ideal, and then changing the "standard" keyboard to one which would support faster typing, continues to be accepted as more difficult than just serving the public with the keyboards they already know how to use. Market forces -- usage forces -- are part of this, of course -- no one bought the Dvorak keyboard, so it requires much effort to find one and configure one's software to accept it;similarly, learn-to-type software tools still perpetuate the Qwerty method.

In this case, something similar has occured. Though it seems to be changing in the newest writing tools (my new blogging tools automatically elide two spaces into one before publishing), some word processors still do the reverse (automatically put two spaces after a period no matter how many spaces te author actually types). This IS fixable, incidentally, in most word processing software, but not in all writing tools students currently use.

More importantly, though, I'd also argue that, in learning, double-spacing after periods is comparable to double-spacing lines of text. The purpose of double-spacing one's lines includes, as I understand it, leaving room for grading and proofing marks, and separating text so that it is easier to look at writing on a micro level -- that is, to better isolate visually the ideas and words students write, so that we are assisted BY the technology in our work helping students learn to write better. To me, that extra space after each sentence offers twice the assistance -- I personally find it easier to reach these goals with students when there is as much room as possible in the presentation OF that writing in which to consider their writing.

Unless you feel it is vital to teach your students how to change the default settings on their tools to match a standard that is not yet accepted by businesses and other tool-using environments post-high school, and unless you insist that some writing tools must be taboo in your classroom, I would argue that as long as students are being consistent about spacing within a single document, both single and double spacing could be accepted as legitimate reflections of real-world usage standards.

And unless you have done the experiment, and find that you are not in any way assisted by the presence of that extra space, as I am, in helping students learn to write, I'd be wary about making that decision based on the usual rules of writing outside of school, which Craig does -- because if we are indeed to require of students that they write based on the rules of writing "out there," then double-spacing, headings, and all the other trappings of student writing which we currently require for purely pedagical reasons must all go out the window with the second space. Are we sure we know what we'd lose if we did that?

posted by boyhowdy | 11:37 AM |

I agree. I use two spaces because that's how I was taught, however it's also just incredibly easier to read for those of us with bad eyesight. When you pile the sentences so close to each other, you risk a lot. Will each sentence have enough weight, on it's own? Will they run into each other?
As for learning a new method, I think the mind of a student is remarkably flexible if you can reach them early enough. If we decided to universally replace two spaces for one tomorrow, and we began teaching it in kindergarten, they'd pick it up in a second, no questions asked I think.
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Everything is single-spaced in books and magazines, so why should anyone do anything different?

Just say no to double-spacing.

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