A Word, Please: The surprising importance of getting the spacing right

An old Remington typewriter.
An old Remington typewriter. Knowing when to insert a space is more important than it may seem, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Share via

Nothing says “This was written by an amateur” like … nothing. White space. Blank space. The number of times you hit that long button at the bottom of a keyboard.

Knowing when to insert a space can give your writing top-tier professional polish. Sound like a goal? Here are five pro tips for using the space bar.

1. Single space between sentences.


The question of whether to put one space or two after a period or other terminal punctuation mark is hotly debated and highly controversial. That’s ridiculous. There’s no controversy here.

For decades, the professional publishing world has followed the standard of using just one space between sentences. That’s true for both book publishing and news media. Even longtime holdout the Modern Language Assn., which guides students on how to write papers, now agrees, saying the only time you would put two spaces between sentences is when your teacher or professor prefers it.

2. Put a space before an ellipsis.

An ellipsis, a series of three dots that indicate that words were cut out or someone trailed off mid-thought, is always preceded by a space … like this. But if you’ve ever looked closely, you might have noticed that sometimes it sure looks like the first dot touches the word in front of it. Sometimes it even looks like there are four dots, not three, and the first one touches the word before it. I can explain.

When the text before an ellipsis is a complete sentence, the rules say you end that sentence with a period. Then you insert a space and then the three-dot ellipsis. … Computers often reformat this series to make it look like four dots in a row, with no spaces between them. But in fact, what you’re seeing is period, space, period, period, period. So technically there’s still a space in front of the ellipsis. When the stuff before the ellipsis is not a complete sentence, don’t add the extra period. Just space, dot, dot, dot.

3. Know when to space around dashes.

An em dash — the long mark that separates parts of a sentence — should have a space before and after it in newswriting. But books and magazines follow a different style, which calls for no spaces. In those instances, the em dash should touch the word on either side. If you don’t need to follow either style, you can pick your preference. Just make sure you’re consistent. And never attach a dash to the word before it but not to the word after. Use two spaces or no spaces.

4. Know when to space between initials.

If you’re like me, you’re used to seeing no spaces between initials: U.S. Army, M.F.K. Fisher. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that books don’t always do it this way, at least not for initials representing people’s names.

“Initials standing in for given names are followed by a period and a space,” advises the Chicago Manual of Style, which applies to most book publishing. So if you’re following Chicago style, you’d write D. B. Cooper or M. F. K. Fisher with spaces after each period. But you would use no space in abbreviations for non-personal names, like U.S. If you’re not following Chicago style, do as the news outlets do and dispense with the spaces.

5. Check a dictionary for spacing between words.

Health care or healthcare? Cell phone or cellphone? First-hand or firsthand? Check-up or checkup? There’s no set rule. Some terms are two words, some are closed compounds, some are hyphenated, some offer multiple correct options. To find out if a space belongs in a compound, check the dictionary for the one-word form first, then the hyphenated form. If neither is in there, make it two words.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.