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Research to the Rescue?

Professors R. Johnson, B. Bui, and L. Schmitt of Skidmore College, writing in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, reported that college students who use two spaces after periods when they type read text with two spaces after periods slightly faster than when it has a single space following periods. It is important to note that this study was conducted using a fixed-width font (Courier New), that the increase in reading rate was at most 3%, and reading comprehension was not affected by spacing. Here is the abstract for the study:

The most recent edition of the American Psychological Association (APA) Manual states that two spaces should follow the punctuation at the end of a sentence. This is in contrast to the one-space requirement from previous editions. However, to date, there has been no empirical support for either convention. In the current study, participants performed (1) a typing task to assess spacing usage and (2) an eye-tracking experiment to assess the effect that punctuation spacing has on reading performance. Although comprehension was not affected by punctuation spacing, the eye movement record suggested that initial processing of the text was facilitated when periods were followed by two spaces, supporting the change made to the APA Manual. Individuals’ typing usage also influenced these effects such that those who use two spaces following a period showed the greatest overall facilitation from reading with two spaces.

Johnson and colleagues reported that the effects of spacing obtained primarily for the 20-some college students who routinely used two spaces after a period when they typed text themselves. Thus, the effect of spacing on reading speed is not across all the participants in their study. Also, as Tara Halle noted in her commentary for Forbes, these participants were all college students—the white rats of lots of psychology experiments—and, thus they are not particularly representative of general population. In addition, one should note that the recommendation about using two spaces after a period in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association refers to the preparation of manuscripts; when manuscripts are set in type for publication, publishers will use their own style sheets, almost certainly employing single spacing after sentence-ending punctuation.

We welcome others’ views of this study.


Johnson, R. L., Bui, B., & Schmitt, L. L. (2018). Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. doi.org/10.3758/s13414-018-1527-6

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Randall Munroe’s take

From Randall Munroe’s XKCD

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Alive on the bigger stage!

The question of whether to add that extra, wasted space after sentence-ending punctuation is hot again! For your reading pleasure:

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Where’s the evidence to justify two spaces?

We’re still scratching our heads trying to figure out what prompted APA to revert back to two spaces at the end of sentences. Combing three likely sources for why they made this change, so far we’ve found the following:

  1. The Manual, itself, doesn’t appear to provide any rationale. In fact, in the introductory chapter, in which changes are enumerated chapter by chapter, no mention is made of the change to two spaces.
  2. On APA’s website, there’s a section devoted to pointing out changes (http://apastyle.apa.org/manual/whats-new.aspx). Here’s what they say about the change to two spaces: “Punctuation—return to two spaces after the period at the end of the sentence recommended for ease of reading comprehension.”
  3. On APA’s blog devoted to the Manual, they have said the change will make manuscripts easier to read: “this new recommendation will help ease their reading by breaking up the text into manageable, more easily recognizable chunks” (http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2009/07/on-two-spaces-following-a-period.html).
  4. On the APA blog, they  say:
  5. The question of whether one space or two should follow end punctuation has been hotly debated for quite some time, and it is no surprise that writers from both camps harbor equally compelling reasons for the approach they have always used, were taught, or have adopted.

  6. On the APA blog, they say: “improved readability was the impetus behind the new ‘two spaces after a period’ style recommendation” (http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2009/06/apa-style-who-we-are.html).

So, based on these statements, it appears that some combination of making manuscripts easier to read or easier to comprehend was the primary rationale for the change. And the only reference to an empirical justification for the change is the claim that both those who advocate for one space and those who advocate for two spaces “harbor equally compelling reasons.”

During times when many disciplines that recommend the APA’s Publication Manual are advocating evidence-based decisions, it’s noteworthy, we think, that these discussions of the rationale for using two spaces at the end of sentences (and after colons) do not appear to be based on scientific examination of the hypothesis that two spaces makes manuscripts more readable. We have to admit that we haven’t employed the most rigorous search methods in seeking evidence, but we’ve searched for studies comparing readability when one or two spaces follow sentence-ending punctuation, and we simply haven’t found any studies of the hypothesis.

We’d welcome assistance from the leadership of the revision of APA’s Publication Manual in locating the evidence undergirding this change. It’d save us some additional head scratching, and neither of us has much hair to protect his scalp from more scratching.


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Why Doesn’t APA Follow Its Own Rules/Recommendations?

Here’s another puzzle. As in previous editions, the Manual contains examples of  manuscript pages (see pp. 41-59) so the reader can get a better sense of how some of the stylistic mechanisms play out. I’ve always thought this was one of the best pedagogical devices in the Manual. And I still do. However, why are the sentences in these example pages only separated by one space?

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Old dogs and new tricks

I am glad that I learned to type. When I learned to type, while I was in junior and senior high school in the 1960s, we had the luxury of using electric typewriters. Even though the schools’ machines were modern typewriters, they used the same technology as both the manual typewriters I had at home, the trusty Royal that I used regularly and the Royal Portable that was in a closet (the latter left over from my father’s college days in the ’20s; I still have both). The school and home typewriters produced type in which every letter occupied a fixed dimension.

Type with fixed dimensions was called “fixed width” or “monospaced.” The physical space occupied on a page was the same for an i and an m. When typewriters had monospaced type, it made sense to use two spaces after sentence-ending punctuation and internal colons.

Wikicommons image of type differences

Without disucssing dot-matrix printers (mayhaps in a later post), when personal printers capable of printing proportional type became widely available, beginning with the Apple Laserwriter (I suppose), things changed dramatically. That extra space after sentence-ending punctuation was no longer needed. I could print type that mimicked the kind of print I knew from learning how to set cold type while in junior high school (a skill I no longer find valuble).

So, 15 years ago I was happy to see that the Publication Manual abandoned its requirement that I make my thumb hit the space bar twice after sentence-ending punctuation (compare p. 140, American Psychological Association, 1983, with p. 244, American Psychological Association, 1994). What liberation! I no longer had to switch modes depending on whether I was typing a manuscript or just about anything else. I could employ the same thumb behavior regardless of reader.

Now I’m asked to return to differential responding. One space after sentence-ending punctuation when I’m typing most everything except manuscripts for submission to journals.

Thanks to Bassetman3 for making this image available

Oh, woe is me. I’m an older dog who must learn new tricks.

I wonder if I should plan to use monospaced fonts, too. Mayhaps I could just put the old Royal on my desk and relegate these monitors and plastic keyboards to a shelf.


American Psychological Association. (1983). Publication manual (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychological Association. (1994). Publication manual (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.


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