“Science” says that two spaces after a period are better after a flawed study


If you’re typing on one of these, two spaces make sense. Otherwise, not so much.

If you’re old enough to remember typing on a typewriter, or learning to type in the early days of computing it was probably hammered into your head to tap the space bar twice after each period. In those early barbaric days of word processing, fixed-width fonts kept text all crammed up and the extra space allowed for an easier time recognizing the end of a sentence. In the intervening years, we’ve evolved and grown and learned that with variable-width fonts that extra space really isn’t necessary. In an inherently flawed study, researchers at Skidmore College used “science” to determine that two spaces after a period are better. But are they really?

To get to their results, the researchers gathered a group of 60 students. They first put them through a test transcribing a paragraph that was read to them. They found that 39 of the students used a single space after periods while 21 used two spaces. That gave them the initial split. From there, both groups were shown a series of paragraphs utilizing different spacing. Some had a single space after both periods and commas, some had two spaces after periods and one space after commas. After that they went completely wacky, putting one space after periods and two spaces after commas or two spaces after both periods and commas.

Researchers used eye-tracking to see how quickly the students read. They used chin and forehead rests to help keep heads still. Students used both eyes to read but in all circumstances only the right eye was tracked. Those first few don’t necessarily set off any flags, but the next one really kind of throws out their entire batch of findings. The paragraphs were displayed in 14 pt Courier New font.

That’s a problem, because Courier New is a fixed-width font. That means that every character is the same width as every other character with no discrepancies. Another way to look at fixed-width fonts is that basically nothing you’re ever going to read is going to be displayed using a fixed-width font. That’s maybe an exaggeration, but really most anything you’re going to read these days will come in a variable-width font. That means that characters can take up more or less horizontal room depending on the letter or character. So spaces automatically have that little bit of extra horizontal real estate to make one sufficient at the end of a sentence.

I’ll admit, I learned to type long enough ago that two spacing was pretty well ingrained into my head, but at this point it just feels archaic and wrong to hit space twice at the end of a sentence.  It looks kind of awkward too.  This paragraph has double spaces and man it just seems odd even with only a couple sentences, but I digress.

The researchers found that the double space lovers read on average just slightly faster than their single spaced peers, especially on the two space paragraphs tested. So the real takeaway is that people who are used to doing one thing might do that one thing incrementally faster than people that don’t. Not really the biggest shock there. I think they might have had a different result if they were reading paragraphs in a typeface that’s actually used in the areas where most people are reading.

What do you think? Should we go back to using two spaces at the end of each sentence? Or were those rules left in the past for good reason? Tell us all about it in the comment section below, or on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

  Source: Ars Technica
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