A Word, Please: Give a little thought to spacing

This is a column about nothing. It's kind of like a show about nothing, just less entertaining — and a lot less lucrative.

The nothing we're talking about is the blank space around punctuation. And for a whole lot of nothing, these blank spaces sure are something. A lot of people struggle with how to space after periods and around ellipses and dashes. But if you just note a few simple facts, it's easy.

Remember how back in the days of girdle-bound typists you were supposed to double space after every sentence? Well, that made sense back in girdle times. Old typewriters printed in "monospace" — a system that gave the same amount of space for every character, be it a tiny period or a capital W.

In this technology, double-spacing after every sentence kept each paragraph from looking like one big run-together blob. Those days are long gone. Word processors now make sentences distinct and easy to read. But a lot of people are living in the past.

One recent Thanksgiving, Slate.com writer Farhad Manjoo asked a group of highly educated dinner guests what they considered to be the "correct" number of spaces between sentences. "Everyone — everyone! — said it was proper to use two spaces," he reported in a 2011 Slate piece.

Manjoo didn't mince words: "Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly and inarguably wrong."

I don't share Manjoo's passion, but I agree with the principle. So does every professional publisher I know of. These days, there's no reason to double space after sentences. News and book editing styles call for a single space to separate sentences. Academic and scientific publishing manuals allow for double spacing, but they also allow single spacing.

When it comes to ellipses, I do get a little emphatic. An ellipsis without spaces around it looks terrible. It can make a whole paragraph look amateurish, probably because it's so out of sync with the look of professional writing, in which style guides require a space on either side of an ellipsis: "Ask … what you can do for your country."

Spacing around ellipses can seem tricky when the text before the ellipsis is a complete sentence. In those cases, here's what most news media do. End the sentence with a terminal punctuation mark, most likely a period. Then insert a space. Then type the ellipsis.

This technically makes for four dots in a row, though the first dot is separated from the other three. "We cannot walk alone. … We cannot turn back." Some word processing programs might make that look as if there's no space between the period and the ellipsis. But as long as you typed one there you're safe.

Spacing around dashes is more controversial. When a dash is used in a sentence, either indicating an abrupt change in sentence structure or setting off parenthetical information, a lot of news outlets put spaces around the dash: "This day — a day we thought would never come — is a great day."

But the Chicago Manual of Style prefers no spaces, and most book and magazine publishers follow suit. But for dashes or hyphens outside of running text, for example in date ranges, time spans, lists or tables, no clear rules apply.

When you're writing about a person who uses initials in place of a first name, styles disagree on whether to put a space between the initials. News style prefers no spaces. W.E.B. DuBois. Book publishing prefers spaces. W. E. B. DuBois.

So with initials and dashes, you can often make your own spacing choices. Around ellipses, spaces are best. And after a sentence, just one space is best.

See? Nothing to it.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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