Thursday, June 21, 2007

Geekin' Full Stop

I've got several far more interesting things to write about, like our afternoon in the pool, last night's bike ride in our bedroom, and our upcoming century, which we'll spin through in one day in October . . . but all that I've got time for now is a more complete explanation for DenverDad, Knucklehead Marketing, and amateur font geeks. It's a piece that I've written a few times since the advent of desktop publishing, in the early 90s, but it's still kind of fun . . . if you're a geek.

DenverDad isn't alone in his training, which ingrained the habit of tapping the space bar twice after each period--or any other punctuation mark, for that matter. Many of us, myself included, were taught in typing class to always tap that thing twice.

Why were we taught that?

In typing class--in my day, anyway--we used typewriters, which have monospaced fonts. This means that every character takes up the same amount of space. Even though an O is much wider than an i, both are given the same amount of space by a typewriter, which means that the i sits in the middle of lots of white space, because the typewriter doesn't know if you've typed an O or an i in that space. Similarly, a period, the smallest character, is surrounded by a gulf of white space.

A period, unlike letters, signals a break between two thoughts. To signal these breaks to readers, typographers have long adjusted the spacing around periods, moving the period closer to the character before it, so that there is a noticeable gap after the period. These gaps are important, because readers see a little ahead of where they are reading, and seeing the gap coming signals to readers that the end of the sentence is approaching.

On a typewriter, there is no way to move a period closer to a character. The only way to provide a noticeable gap after a period, which is already engulfed in white space, is to add a second space after it.

Why don't we still have to tap that thing twice?

Computers are more clever than typewriters and generally use proportional fonts (although you can still use monospace fonts, like Courier). As a result, computers take care of spacing just like typographers used to, moving the period in close to create a visible gap after it. When you set them side-by-side, it's easy to see the difference between monospace and proportional font spacing.

In addition, computers automatically break lines, and having two spaces after a sentence can play havoc with that feature, leaving a space at the beginning of a line, which unintentionally indents the line after a period. The Chicago Manual of Style Web site describes the other problems using two spaces after a period can create, all of which I've encountered in one place or another.

And yes, these are the kinds of issues that fill my day. This is what I'm paid to sort out. (But I'm not the only one, so there. It is so a valid way to earn a living.) So when the average air temperature at the North Pole is 110 F and we're all digging estivation burrows to survive, I might not be so handy with the shovel. But if you need someone to properly punctuate and layout instructions for burrow digging, I'm your man. Until then, I'll be over here, in the shade of this Arctic date palm, fanning myself with a frond and sucking the last drops of fresh water from the remains of the polar ice cap that we're keeping in the picnic cooler.

(Come to think of it, this whole idea of digging burrows to escape the killing heat resulting from our own activities seems to be a familiar one. I wonder where I've encountered it before. Oh, that's right, it was here.)

OK, talk amongst yourselves while I try to find time to write a post that even nongeeks can enjoy.

[Credit where credit is due: all that talk of tapping came from a coworker's piece--er, so to speak--on this topic. I also mention this so you don't think that my mind drags in the gutter behind me wherever I go. Because now that I'm a dad, I'm all righteous indignation and sanctimonious bullshit and . . . oh, crap . . . never mind.]

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  1. I still type two spaces, probably a relic of typing class. It's something I struggle to remember while editing though, because most people go along with CMOS (OK, do I get full geek points for using the acronym?).

    PS: The online CMOS rocks. I love my big orange book, but once I got used to it, I found the online version is way better.

  2. You go, boy.

    Coupla other things people should know, since computers are so interesting. I know you know 'em already, because you can't have your job and not know them:

    1) Good word processors will flag you for accidentally inserting two spaces after a period, just as they will flag suspicious spelling and (depending on the word processor) grammar that might not suit everyone's taste.

    Good word processors also will ignore all the spaces you care to put at the end of a line. Adding spaces is a crummy way to force a line break, and in a perfect world won't work anyhow.

    2) Web browsers are supposed to automatically ignore multiple spaces between anything--words, sentences, punctuation marks. (. . . is different from ..., but if I add more than one space between the periods, a good browser should collapse them into a single visual space: . . . ) If you need extra spaces between two things (let's say you're inserting blank space between two pictures in a low-tech way), you can force extra spaces with HTML, but the default is to ignore extra spaces.

    I could go on, but even on the longest day of the year there's only so much space for spacing.


  3. I use two spaces after each period and one after other punctuation marks, and Microsoft Word seems fine with it. I learned to type when a keyboard was found on a piano and a piano was a piece of furniture that did not travel with the pianist. Blogger seems happy with my two spaces too.

  4. Well, I was specifically thinking of Word when I typed that last message, so count me wrong. Technically I should never have lumped Word in with good word processors anyhow, but it is the one I was thinking of.

    Anyhow, a good word processor should catch this kind of eyesore before it gets printed.

    There's no reason Blogger would flag anything for you, and no way it really could. Blogger doesn't have a word processor. Blogger lets you enter information via standard text-entry fields in Web pages. Your browser is responsible for how those get handled. I'm not aware of a browser that spell-checks text-entry fields (though it would be possible).

    You'll notice that standard text-entry fields also don't convert inch marks (") and foot marks (') to more graceful apostrophes (’) and quotation marks (“ ”), which Word does by default; they don't convert double hyphens (--) to dashes (—) either: They're not here to make the type graceful; they're here to make it serviceable.

    Furthermore, as noted above, browsers don't care how many spaces you put in your HTML code; they'll condense them down to one unless you put in specific extra code to mandate the extra spacing. (In this sense they are designed to be forgiving of errors.) So Blogger doesn't care if you use one space, or two spaces, or three spaces. If the folks at Blogger were losing sleep over it, they'd know that standards-based browsers would correct the mistyped spaces.

    All these guidelines for using punctuation are organized to help make text easier to read. Many are aesthetic choices, although they're informed by centuries of typesetting trial and error. They're pretty good rules, but they're best used to serve the greater purpose of clear communication, not as cudgels to punish those who do things differently. And keep in mind that different languages and countries settle on different standards. One's not universally or inherently right or wrong, but it's usually sensible to use the one that's considered correct in your area.

    Studies (probably sponsored by nitpickers) have shown that readers pick up on these things subconsciously even when they don't consciously notice them. Little irregularities and glitches affect how we regard something we're reading. Naturally the words and the sense count too, but if you give someone the identical passage in two forms—reasonably well presented or printed with lots of inch and foot marks, extra spaces, maybe a few misspellings or funky capitalizations—even the readers who can't point out the specific differences will typically consider the second version less reliable. It's a matter of degree, but it does color our perception.

    Computer keyboards after all these years are still designed for programmers, with all kinds of keys most of us don't use often ({|}), instead of keys that would be useful all the time (“—”). The keyboard I learned to type on didn't have a key for the number 1; you were expected to use a lower-case l instead. But that was before the Arabs invented monotheism . . .

  5. mrjumbo, you are too right. When I see errors in books I cringe...especially when they are pretty glaring. (My current favorite: a reference to the Papal Sea. Were they thinking of the Mediterranean, perhaps?) It affects the way I view the book and even the publisher. Though I should be a bit less harsh, given that I let things slip too, but it happens nevertheless.

    And I just got paid good money to fix a manuscript that had many foot marks instead of apostrophes...evidently Wordperfect didn't covert over to Word real well that time.

    Word isn't a great word processor, but at least it let me create a macro for coverting pesky double hyphens into em dashes.

    Guess I'm one of those nitpickers.

  6. Papa B, it's like some wacked neurological experiment around here now.

    My fingers type two spaces after every full stop (ha!) automatically, and then my brain chimes in, "Papa B said one, only one!" So, I go back and delete the extra space.

    What hath you wrought, you rogue?

  7. Blame MrJ too. Everything he said is right too. Glad that I could help drag you kicking and screaming into the digital age. I did it to everyone here at work too. Some of their thumbs still twitch when they see me.