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A Word, Please: Despite a specious study, spacing between sentences still the way to go

How's this for a newspaper headline?

"One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong."

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Wow. Strong stuff. It sounds like the Washington Post, which recently ran this story about how many spaces you should put after a period, must have blown the lid off some longstanding language myth.

Actually, they didn't.

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Articles about new research have an annoying tendency to overstate the results. "Eating fast food can cause spinsterhood" is far more attention-grabbing than "Single people, in general, and young single people, in particular, are less likely to cook meals and are, therefore, statistically more likely to eat fast food."

Such is the case with a recent Washington Post article about spacing after a period. From the headline, we can infer two things: 1. There's a "they" who have been arguing that single spacing is better. 2. "They" have now been debunked.

The Washington Post's source: a recent study showing that double-spacing after a period improves reading speed. Thus, those hordes of people who say single-spacing is better are officially proven wrong.

It's all quite misleading.

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First, despite the article's implication that armies of pro-single-spacers are marching on a town near you, only two such proponents are cited.

I've spent a lot of time talking with people about matters like this, and I can tell you that there's no war going on here.

It's not like the serial comma — the second comma in red, white, and blue — whose proponents are loud, proud and plentiful (and whose opponents have an equally valid argument).

When it comes to spacing between sentences, most people simply want to know what the rule is rather than tell others what the rule should be.

Second, the research is weak. Psychologists monitored the eye movements of 60 test subjects — that's right, just 60 — and found that 21 of them read a tiny bit faster when sentences were separated by two spaces.

Those 21 people, it turns out, were the same 21 who used double-spacing in their own writing. The other 39 read no faster when periods were followed by double spaces.

Another problem: For the study, participants read text in a wide, squat courier font similar to the fonts used by the first typewriters. Back in those days, you pretty much had to double-space after a period because the typeface made every sentence look run together.

Single-spacing came into vogue only after word processors created fonts that fixed this problem, making it easier to see where each sentence began.

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Finally, the conclusion, according to the article, is that double spaces are "better" not because they make reading faster but because they make it "smoother." What does that mean? They don't say.

But the biggest problem with the Washington Post piece: The whole thing is a straw-man argument. The people who say to use the single spaces between sentences don't argue their way is superior. They don't say it makes reading faster or "smoother."

They say only: Those are the rules. And, indeed, they are.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by most book publishers, and the Associated Press Stylebook, which is followed by most news media, agree you should type just one space between sentences. That's their rule.

It's a safe bet these rules don't have much to do with reading speed measured in nanoseconds. In news media, many style rules stem from the fact that it costs a lot of money to print thousands of newspapers every day. Policies designed to use space as efficiently as possible improve cost efficiencies — at least in the old days when the rules were written. Aesthetic considerations likely came into play, too.

Either way, the consensus is clear: Most rule books require single spaces between sentences.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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