How many spaces after a period, one or two? Space or double space? If you’re like me, old enough to remember typing your first research papers on your parents’ IBM Selectric, —ancient, even then, but thrilling nonetheless, the way the letters jumped from a center ball that spun and rotated across the page—then you probably prefer two spaces, even though, as you are becoming increasingly aware, typeset pages, like the ones you see in nearly every print publication of every kind, from the smallest circulation literary magazine to The New York Times, use a single space. Only. There is, as you must reluctantly admit, no such thing as double-spacing in print publication. A single space presides after every period. A space no different than the one after a comma or semi-colon. Yes, you know this; still, you use two spaces after each period. Why?
Because you took a typing class in seventh grade, for starters. The class met in a room fitted out with twenty manual typewriters resting atop twenty desks, the typewriters wearing a vinyl cover that could only be removed upon the instructor’s permission and, at the end of each session, carefully replaced, requiring you to position the typewriter’s carriage just so. The instructor was old, even by seventh grade teacher standards, and his voice shook as he called out the sentences you were to type, including—and this seems important—the spaces after each punctuation mark. Comma, space. Period, double space. The sound of twenty space bars double-spacing: a basketball dribbled twice. Failure to double space, a red instructor’s mark, a lower grade.
Because, in college, you upgraded to a portable word processor, heavy as a packed suitcase, but light enough to carry to the dorm lounge whenever your roommate had a visitor. The word processor stored your papers—documents, you began calling them, without quite realizing it—on disks, enabling you to save your work for later, the words on the page and yet not on the page, either, since you hadn’t printed them out yet, a new phrase to put alongside documents. Still, you wrote those words as if they would be printed out, because that’s what words aspired to, you began to realize, to be part of sentences to be printed out, and those sentences needed a punctuation mark at the end with two spaces after to give them their proper due. A pause. Breathing room. Authority.
Because, right after you traded in your portable word processor—that old thing!—for your first personal computer, you began writing short stories, and sentences suddenly seemed something larger than words on a page; they became individual brushstrokes on a canvas framed by top, bottom, right and left margins. Something to take time on, to linger upon, even for hours, as you did, drinking coffee late into the night. A sentence was a slow-born thing, you began to understand, and to finish one was a kind of honor, one that required a double space, as if to say, There, done, yes, made it, now it is so. The double space sent the cursor more forcefully into the blank page, to better accompany your mind, which suddenly had no idea how it had ever written a good sentence in the first place. For each sentence completed only sent you into the next sentence to be completed, where all the old challenges cropped up again—word choice, tone, grammar, syntax, style, clarity, coherence, precision—the completed sentence offering no clues where the next was to follow. Every sentence is a solo act. A truth the double space only wished you to know better. A truth a single space would rather you never learn.
Because you have tried using a single space, even though you won’t admit it. A phase that only lasted a few months or so, right around the time you started noticing that your students, born in the era when you traded the word processor for the PC, used a single space after periods. So you tried, for the sake of keeping up, for the sake of growing and changing, for the sake of not suffering potential embarrassment, always important to you. You single-spaced after each period. A feeling like walking on one foot. Like looking left, right, but not left again. Like parking bumper to bumper in a crowded lot. You couldn’t get the hang of it, so back to double-spacing you went, and where you have stayed. You can’t help it: you like the world a little bit better with double-spacing in it.
But what to do now? You have two children, and they both use computers, both like writing stories and jokes; sometimes even a screenplay, which they film with their iPods. Sometimes they need your help spelling certain words, help you are happy to give. You stand beside them as they type the word and reach the end of the sentence. You hold your breath after they type the period. The cursor blinks. Your children hesitate, about to ask another question. Space or double space?