typography - When do you leave a space in a paragraph and when do you not?

20
2014-04
  • Magpie

    I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if not.

    I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following one another without a space.

    I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.

    Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should put a space, or should they follow on, too? Should the space even be there or is it just something people do?

  • Answers
  • tchrist

    You have your choice. The white space goes either between paragraphs, or else in front of them, but probably not both.

    Version 1, common on the Internet:

    I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if not.

    I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following one another without a space.

    I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.

    Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should put a space, or should they follow on too? Should the space even be there or is it just something people do?

    Version 2, common in print:

              I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if not.
              I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following one another without a space.
              I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.
              Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should put a space, or should they follow on too? Should the space even be there or is it just something people do?

  • Jon Hanna

    There are two separate things here, and I'm not sure which (or both) you are talking about.

    As a rule, paragraphs will make some sort of use of whitespace to indicate where they end or begin. The most common styles are block paragraphs with extra vertical space (typically, the same amount as a blank line of text would take up):

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque elementum aliquet dolor, vitae ultricies risus sagittis vel.

    Aenean lobortis sagittis erat sed imperdiet. In augue lacus, tincidunt eu mollis vel, pellentesque ac libero. Duis feugiat laoreet urna, auctor iaculis diam fringilla sed. Etiam massa metus, faucibus id lobortis non.

    Proin sed nisi magna, vitae convallis velit. Cras ac mi vitae elit bibendum vehicula. Maecenas rutrum, ligula et adipiscing aliquet, elit augue sodales tellus, nec lacinia lorem nunc ut est.

    And indenting the second and subsequent paragraphs of a section, with no extra vertical space:

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque elementum aliquet dolor, vitae ultricies risus sagittis vel.
            Aenean lobortis sagittis erat sed imperdiet. In augue lacus, tincidunt eu mollis vel, pellentesque ac libero. Duis feugiat laoreet urna, auctor iaculis diam fringilla sed. Etiam massa metus, faucibus id lobortis non.
            Proin sed nisi magna, vitae convallis velit. Cras ac mi vitae elit bibendum vehicula. Maecenas rutrum, ligula et adipiscing aliquet, elit augue sodales tellus, nec lacinia lorem nunc ut est.

    Other styles are certainly found; combining the two is sometimes done, but generally considered excessive, while having nothing to indicate a new paragraph other than the line-break of the previous line, is not unheard of, particularly in cheaper paperbacks. More obscure options such as running the line on and placing a picrow (¶) between them, can be found, but are extremely rare.

    The important thing to realise, is that these are matters of typographic choices, rather than of writing. This has a few important consequences:

    1. If you are using a word-processor, you should be making paragraphs happen in the same way regardless. Typically, you press the enter/return key to start a new paragraph, and do so with the shift key held down to enter a line-break within the paragraph in question (not done within normal English prose; only required for addresses and some special cases where you are not writing normal sentences). The different types of spacing are a matter of the style of the paragraph and are made not by pressing the space or enter/return keys extra times, but by changing the styles of the document. (Word, LibreOffice Writer and OpenOffice.org Writer all offer these changes under Format > Styles and Formatting. If you don't know what the options here do, learn them).
    2. Because of this, you can change the style of every paragraph in a document from one of the styles above to the other, and back again, in one fell swoop. If you have to (and the points that follow show why you might) you'll be glad you didn't actually type extra spaces and empty paragraphs manually.
    3. Style guides may have set rules as to which format you should use, which you should follow whether you like them or not. Luckily, you can just write in the style you find comfortable, and then change the style as the last thing you do before printing or sending the file.*
    4. Publications will have their own style, and they will change your writing to match it. This is not even considered an editorial change, no more than what colour the text is, or what font it is in, or even whether the paper is glossy; it's a design decision. If republished in an anthology or journal, the same text will be changed to match the style of the new publication it is part of. They won't even tell you, or imagine you'd care.†
    5. Style guides a publication insists on will not generally match that they print to. They'll want to receive writings in a style based on either one that is common elsewhere, or what an editor prefers to read an A4 or US-Letter size typescript in, while possibly adding hand-written notes. They'll want to print writings in a style that suits the format they are printing in, and generally with less line-space because most readers of most documents are not expected to add notes as an editor does.

    As such you don't need to worry about most of this if you aren't self-publishing, barring that you match the style-guide you are writing to, and you use styles rather than typing spaces and empty paragraphs so that you can quickly change to match a different style-guide.

    If you are self-publishing, then you need to worry about it more. Take a look at what similar works have done. As a rough guide, use the indenting style above if it's going to be about the size of a typical paper- or hard-back book, and use the block size if it's going to be about A4 or US-Letter size. Use line spacing somewhere around 20% of the size of the font (i.e. if a 10pt font, then somewhere around 12pt total height of each line; different fonts will work better slightly above or below that, but generally not much above or below), and have the space between paragraphs the same as that total line-height (so 12pt in this example). You can do well to go outside of that guideline, but you need to read up on scale and rhythm in typography if you are going to do so.


    Now, the other thing you may have been talking about, is extra space between paragraphs; used to indicate that one paragraph is much more different to the preceding one, than most paragraphs are from each other.

    In a narrative (fiction, journalistic accounts, historical accounts, biography, memoir, etc.) this is done to signify a change of scene. You do it when you are moving to another time or place or to focus on another person.

    In other non-fiction writing, you do it because you need to completely change what you are talking about, and the paragraph does not directly follow the previous. Consider a new section with a new heading, either on the same level as the current section, or as a subsection of it. On the one hand, if this makes sense then the new section with new heading will help the reader. On the other, if it makes absolutely no sense, it probably shouldn't be considered a break at all, and you should just start a new paragraph normally. You should add extra space if there's a vague argument for a new section, but not a very compelling one.

    Again, style-guides will often have rules as to how such extra space should be signalled (including perhaps saying that they never should, and banning such extra space entirely). A common form is "# # #" centred, as a paragraph of it's own before the new paragraph.

    If you're self-publishing, you will have to decide how much extra space to give, and whether to add something like a row of three asterisks or not. Whichever you choose, have one single style for such breaks. Avoid printing any at the start of a page, if necessary remove that break for your print-run, and let the page break be it's own break for the reader. (But do leave it in at the start of the page if it's for someone else to publish, they'll need to know where that break is as it will not be on the same position on the page in the final version). Use full multiples of the line-height of the rest of the text. So for example, with our 10pt text with 12pt line-height example above, you might have a 24pt gap between scenes, or 12pt, then three asterisks, then 12pt.

    It can be a good idea to set up a style in your word-processor for such indicators of a break. This again allows you to change the style to match a new style-guide, or to reliably find-and-replace all of them.

    *Since typescripts are received electronically these days, some will not care beyond a requirement that you use "hard breaks" (that is, paragraphs rather than line-breaks) between paragraphs, because they will just change the style themselves. This is another reason to follow the advice above. Conversely, if one really does want two manual returns between paragraphs, then if every single such return in your text is a new paragraph, it's a simple find-and-replace to change them all.

    †An exception would be some fiction and poetry writers who make typographic choices part of their medium, and people whose actual topic is typography (and the only fiction writers I can think of that count, have a background in typography).


  • Related Question

    punctuation - How many spaces should come after a period/full stop?
  • Pops

    In the past — or at least, when I was in elementary school — periods/full stops were followed by two spaces. Lately, it's become more and more common to see just one space. In the modern world, should we still use two spaces between sentences, or is just one okay? Does it depend on the situation? Or are both acceptable, with the choice simply coming down to personal preference?


  • Related Answers
  • ShreevatsaR

    Actually, I feel a few of the other answers here (and even the question) are a bit simplistic: there's more to this issue than is indicated by the latest editions of the Chicago Manual of Style or Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style. In lieu of a very long answer, let me point to the (long) Wikipedia articles on exactly this issue:


    My (inadequate) summary would be something like the following:

    • The traditional typesetters' convention was to use a (single) longer space between sentences than between words. For instance, CMoS 1911 still recommends a 3-em space between words and an em-quad between sentences.

    • With the introduction of the typewriter (invented in the late 19th century), many typographical niceties were lost: the typewriters produced monospaced (fixed-width) text, and the only choice was between one space and two. Many people felt a single space wasn't sufficient to see the gap between sentences at a glance, so double spacing came into vogue.

    • Today, with proportional (variable-width) fonts, two spaces is no longer necessary, and can look distractingly too wide. Modern tools allow more choice than between exactly "one space" or two. In particular, TeX and LaTeX have got it right since the 1980s: they typeset a slightly longer space between sentences (though this can be turned off). HTML ignores multiple consecutive spaces anyway. (Sometimes fonts try to be smart and have the period character itself have a wider space following it, but this isn't ideal: there can be periods within a sentence, because of abbreviations etc.)


    Even shorter summary (my opinion):
    Don't use two spaces unless you're using a fixed-width font like a typewriter. If forced to choose only between one space and two, choose one. But if your typesetting system supports it, have a wider space between sentences.

  • mmyers

    Both are still acceptable, though the two-space style has been falling out of favor with the advent of variable-width fonts.

    From Common Errors:

    However, when justified variable-width type is set for printing it has always been standard to use only one space between sentences. Modern computers produce type that is more like print, and most modern styles call for only one space after a period.

    The Chicago Manual of Style agrees in these two Q&A segments: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/OneSpaceorTwo/OneSpaceorTwo01.html
    http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/OneSpaceorTwo/OneSpaceorTwo03.html

    The latter states:

    The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes.

    So yes, it basically falls to personal preference, but one space is becoming more and more prevalent.

    (It's worth noting that all HTML renderers I know of automatically condense multiple spaces into one, so it would actually take some effort to get the double-space style to render on the web.)

  • SWB

    Robert Bringhurst has this to say about the subject in The Elements of Typographic Style:

    2.1.4 Use a single word space between sentences.

    In the nineteenth century, which was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design, many compositors were encouraged to stuff extra space between sentences. Generations of twentieth-century typists were then taught to do the same, by hitting the space character twice after every period. Your typing as well as your typesetting will benefit from unlearning this quaint Victorian habit. As a general rule, no more than a single space is required after a period, a colon or any other mark of punctuation. Larger spaces (e.g., en spaces) are themselves punctuation.

    The rule is usually altered, however, when setting classical Latin and Greek, romanized Sanskrit, phonetics or other kinds of texts in which sentences begin with lowercase letters. In the absence of a capital, a full en space (M/2) between sentences will generally be welcome.

    Before I first read this many years ago, I had always used two spaces after every period (as I had been instructed by my middle-school typing teacher). Since then, however, I’ve observed that a single space after a period is used in almost all professionally typeset materials (books, magazines, etc.), and I’ve changed my habits.

    I continue to use two spaces after a period when writing in a monospace font, because I feel monospaced text is more readable this way, but I use a single space whenever I’m using a proportional font.

  • Abel

    It seems that four or so observations have not yet made it into this thread, so let's add them:

    • Much printed writing (magazines, newspapers) is done with full-width left and right aligned text. This induces a natural (or not) length space after the period which is different in size in each sentence. Here the use of double spaces after periods should be avoided.

    • The habit of adding an extra space for visible clarity comes mostly from monospaced fonts. Since about all typewriters used to be monospaced and further in history, type setting used to be monospaced too, the extra space had a benefit. Now many (older?) people still have this habit.

    • In type setting, kerning has always been very important. Kerning is about how much particular letters or punctuation should be apart. A dot should be closer to its preceding letter, double "ff" should be kerned closer than double "dd" for instance and the space before a capital should be larger than a space before a small letter. This automatically introduces a larger space between full stop and first letter in next sentence. Watch closely: a next sentence starting with a quotation character should get a smaller space.

    • With the introduction of computer type writing (not type setting!) and proportional fonts, a heated debate was and is going on about kerning and the inability to add kerning to fonts or the reluctance of font designers to do so. However, in proportional fonts and online editing, one should leave kerning (and thus: spacing) to the rendering engine, whether to paper or to screen. Screen however has limited possibilities, but with text, kerning is on its way back due to better support in text writers and has always been around for professional type setters (LaTeX and some Adobe products).

    Conclusion: double space after a full stop is a cosmetic habit of the typewriting age and before, and should not be used in online writing or proportional / kerned writing.

  • nohat

    I used to be a stickler about this in my own writing and when editing others writing as well, but especially as the computer has taken the place of the typewriter in my writing (showing my age a bit) and as the brevity of twitter has influenced my other writing (in a good way, mostly) I've come to see the 2nd space as a waste of space.

    One nail in the second space's coffin, for me, was watching this video with Microsoft's ex-typography guru, Bill Hill.

  • Toby Allen

    As aluded to by one of the respondents, the reason (most likely) that a single space has become common place is due to the fact that HTML won't allow two sequential spaces without a bit of special plumbing, so the second space got lost in a lot of online writing. However now that we are used to it I think it's probably here to stay.

    My preference would be for two as I find it a good visual cue of a sentence end.

  • Mark Thomas

    I always thought that an extra space following the period at the end of a sentence and before the start of a new one, as opposed to a single space after a comma or a semicolon, etc. is there to emphasize a slightly longer pause in the rhythm of a language… And typesetting environments like TEX has always handled that elegantly, only wider-spread applications like office productivity suits, etc. do not known, how to handle it correctly.

  • nohat

    I dropped my old school days/typewriter habit of typing two spaces after a period after I read about fonts in The Mac is not a Typewriter by Robin Williams. That was way back in 1991.

    Robin explained what many have said above: typewriter monospaced fonts needed the second space to compensate for not being able to use proportional fonts. In typesetting with proportional fonts, using one space after a sentence has always been the norm.

    It's a wonderful book and she also points out some other stylistic customs to follow in manuscripts for a professional appearance.

    As an amazon.com review says:

    "What is important for the non professional typist to know [is to] use "smart" quotes, don't space twice after a period, italicize instead of underlining, create a long (em) dash by typing [shift + option + -]"

    I find it very odd that there are apparently so many folks who didn't "get the memo" on this even after all these years. heheh

    It's about appearance, not about html coding.

  • D W

    LaTeX handles this in the most aesthetically pleasing way. This typesetting software uses somewhere between a space and a space and a half for intra-sentence spaces.

  • Cade Roux

    Without extra space between sentences, how does one tell the difference between (HTML rendering is going to collapse these):

    Watch it, Mr. Smith is coming. (one sentence)

    Watch it, Mr. Smith is coming. (two sentences)

    disambiguating: (with   to force a space)

    Watch it, Mr. Smith is coming. (one sentence)

    Watch it, Mr.  Smith is coming. (two sentences)

    i.e.

    Watch it, Mister. Smith is coming. (two sentences)

  • Matthew Rankin

    Farhad Manjoo has a great article on "Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period."

    Mr. Manjoo claims that:

    Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule.

    While the two-space rule was adopted during the typewriter era of monospaced fonts, it should go the way of the dodo bird given the adoption of proportional fonts.

    Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

    Personally, I have converted to the one-space rule even when using a monospaced font. I agree with Mr. Manjoo that:

    But I actually think aesthetics are the best argument in favor of one space over two. One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing (it also requires less work, which isn't nothing).

  • dbkk

    When using a word processor, my father inserts a line break after every line (and two between paragraphs). Needless to say, it messes up word wrapping. Two spaces after each period is similar -- a useless anachronism from the bad old typewriter days.

  • Tim

    For most uses, there's no need for a double space.

    A well defined font will handle the spacing between characters with kerning, and adding a double space should be unnecessary. If the font you use has such poor kerning that you can't see the period or sentence structure without two spaces, just use a better font. For normal prose, it's just something you shouldn't need to worry about.

    Of course, if you're composing concrete poetry or advertising copy, you may have to worry after all.

  • Marcus Adams

    You should separate sentences with one space, not two.

    The reasoning is simple. The AP and MLA handbooks state that you should include only one space. If you include two, you will be marked down.

    Submissions guidelines from most publishers ask for a single space.

  • Jay

    Others have discussed the typographical issues; I have nothing to add there.

    Two spaces are a pain on computers because they require extra, special logic rules for the computer to process correctly. It's not just HTML: two spaces were a pain for the earliest word processors. When the computer sees two spaces, it doesn't know if it's the end-of-sentence rule, or if the user is trying to make columns line up or do some other special formatting. It requires some extra logic when you get to the end of a line: if a line ends with the end of a sentence, we don't want to leave an extra gap at the end of that line, making it uneven with lines above and below, and we don't want to carry the space down to the next line. Etc. Of course writers of word processing software have long since come up with solutions to these problems, but in the early days it could be an issue.

    Yes, I was taught this rule in typing class too, back in the 1970's. I think it was simply an unnecessary, nuisance rule back then, and more so now. It's one of those rules that is mostly followed because it is a rule rather than because there is any good reason for it.