It’s The End of an Era: Microsoft Word Says 2 Spaces After a Period is Wrong

It’s The End of an Era: Microsoft Word Says 2 Spaces After a Period is Wrong

Do you use one or two spaces after a period?

Sorry for derailing your day and that of the poor non-writers in your household. I know you’re duty-bound as a wordsmith to engage in a raging debate about sentence spacing now that I’ve brought it up.

Maybe this will snuff the flames on this decades-old dumpster fire: Microsoft Word, that powerhouse in word processing, has finally weighed in on the great space debate. Its verdict? Two spaces after a period is out.

Word will now flag two spaces after a period with that dreaded Spellcheck-style squiggly line and suggest a single space to replace it, The Verge reports.

The update is included with the premium version of the company’s new Editor, a browser extension and new Word feature that makes spelling, grammar and style suggestions akin to tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid.

Is a double space after a period actually incorrect?

Two spaces after a period is not incorrect — nor is it correct. (Sorry..?)

Most style guides, which lay out the norms for how industries including book publishers, newspapers and academics write, have made the switch to favor a single space between sentences.

It’s one of hundreds of miniscule style choices publishers, writers, editors and style guides make about their content. But no Grammar Goddess has ever carved this or any rule into stone.

Writers and editors tend to have serious feelings about grammar, style and usage — like whether the Oxford comma is necessary — but any editor worth her salt will admit no single rule about how we write is universally correct or incorrect.

Of the major guides, APA Style — which guides some academic writing — was the lone hold out in the two-spaces camp until 2018, when its seventh edition finally recommended one space.

Some legal writers still insist on two spaces, as well, but the American Bar Association recommends a single space.

Why do we double space after a period?

Most modern lore cites typewriters as a practical explanation for the double-space habit.

The logic goes: An extra space after a period helped distinguish one sentence from another in a typewriter’s fixed-width typeface (similar to the font Courier New). Digital-age word processors and content management systems use variable-width fonts (what you’re reading now), so periods hug tight to a sentence’s end, and one space leaves plenty of breathing room before the next begins.

But the debate existed long before word processors came along, journalist and editor James Felici detailed in an essay. The double space — and other defunct sentence spacing — existed before the typewriter, and some typesetters as far back as the 18th century used the single space.

Another fun fact from Felici: In the 1960s, electronic phototypesetting systems got the jump on Microsoft Editor and automatically collapsed double spaces into single.

You might have read about the 2018 study published in the journal “Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics” and reported by the Atlantic, which crowned two spaces the winner for helping participants read slightly faster.

That study is legit, but, the Washington Post reports, studies over the years have yielded conflicting results.

So, bottom line, we don’t know why we double space after a period — or ever did. You can be sure, though, there were probably some opinionated publishers carrying on about it in some town square somewhere in the 1700s.

When did double space after a period change?

No clear double-space era ever gave way to a single-space era — hence the ongoing debate.

Anecdotally, most people my age (a millennial born in 1986) remember learning to double space after a period in elementary school, even though we worked in word processors. Then at some point in the late 90s or early aughts, we just…didn’t anymore.

Style guides, because they follow rather than lead usage, were mostly late to make the change. The first edition of AP Stylebook that recommends a single space after a period was published in 2009. The Chicago Manual of Style didn’t explicitly recommend one space until 2003, but tacitly endorsed the style in 1993, says CMOS editor Russell Harper.

How to double space in Word without that judgy squiggle

It looks like Editor flags a double space as a style issue, part of its premium Refinements feature, which makes suggestions beyond the spelling and grammar we’re used to. You’ll only see the suggestion if you have a Microsoft 365 subscription.

Determined double spacers, you’re not doomed to a life of judgment under the watchful eye of Editor. You can adjust your preferences so it won’t flag your double spaces.

The easiest way is to click on the offending space in your document after Editor underlines it and select “Always Ignore.”

Or you can be proactive and dig into Word’s settings. 

Once your version of Word is updated to include Editor, you’ll see the blue-pencil Editor icon at the top of the window when you’re working on a document. To adjust your proofing settings, according to PCWorld:

  1. Click on the icon to open the Editor menu.
  2. Click on Settings at the bottom of that menu.
  3. Click “Proofing” on the left side of settings.
  4. Scroll down to a section that says “Choose the checks Editor will perform for Grammar and Refinements.” Select the Settings button next to it.
  5. In the window that pops up, scroll down to the “Punctuation Conventions” section, and select “don’t check” next to Space Between Sentences. (You’ll notice you can set Editor to prefer the Oxford comma or not, too.)

Anyone can easily remove the double space after a period

Don’t have access to Word’s premium Editor? If you use Word without a 365 subscription or you use another word processor like Google Docs, you can spot and remove double spaces with “find and replace.”

  1. In your document, pull up Find and Replace from the Edit dropdown menu or ⌘+shift+H.
  2. In the “Find” box, type a period and two spaces.
  3. In the “Replace with” box, type a period and one space.
  4. Click “Replace All.”

Writers, your editor will almost certainly make this change to your copy. And then they’ll roll their eyes and wonder which century you rolled out of.

Whether you prefer double spaces or just can’t retrain your itchy space-bar thumb to stop at one space after a period, do yourself and your editor the favor of removing double spaces before you submit.

So…how many spaces after a period is correct?

Sentence spacing is an ever-changing piece of grammar and style, subject to stylistic whims, technological shifts and editorial compulsion.

Most publishers and editors you’ll work with have come around to single spacing, so stick to that style if you’re writing for publication by pretty much any third party.

For anything you write to publish yourself — or things that aren’t for publication, like emails — you’re free to follow any style rules you choose.

But, let’s be honest: Two spaces after a period is, obviously, the wrong choice.

Now, can we talk about why you’re still using Microsoft Word and not literally any other writing tool? Plus, do we think Google Docs might follow suit? We sure hope so!

Photo via Alex from the Rock / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft

20 comments

  • Colleen Logie says:

    As a data-entry operator and secretary from the last century, I have ALWAYS used 2 spaces. You learn your speed as a typist because that is all you do, and the double space is total instinct for me. It’s like suddenly telling a driver to not use the clutch when they change gears – too late, I did it! So, while I have sometimes had clients who want a single space, it slows me down to actually have to re-train 40 years of instinct. It’s quicker to do the ‘replace all’ option afterwards, than to slow my writing down to remember not to double tap! Also, as someone else noted, I don’t want a capital letter after etc. just because the computer said so… Or I will start calling the computer HAL, and I will become even more concerned with the world than I already am 😛

  • Dawn Fewkes says:

    I find it frustrating that a computer operating system sets a preference, since the requirement is decided by the style sheet that you follow. I honestly miss typewriting when a writer did not have to fight with an operating system that decides to add an extra space between lines without asking, make it inconvenient to insert commonly used symbols, and respelling words that are spelled differently in the U.K. Yes, one CAN change the preferences, but every time the computer updates the operating system, it will revert to adding extra spaces between lines or whatever adjustment you have changed.

  • Anne Greening says:

    Two spaces after a full stop was drilled into me at school, from the days when I first started to write, until I matriculated in 1949. I have been using the double-spacing for longer than many people’s lifetimes, so when I started writing my first novel less than 2 years ago, I was traumatised by having to change my writing habits. I accept that standards change, but even after months of practice, I still slip back into my dear old-fashioned ways now and again. My personal feeling is the end of a sentence is too important a break to be marked by only on miserly single little space – but feeling apart, a writer has to go with the flow, however repugnant. For which reason, I am glad to hear that MS now has the grace to mark these lapses for me. Thank you MS.

  • Dana,

    Double spacing after a period is something which helps readers scanning, or even reading carefully, read your work and understand it better. The decision to single-space in typesetting is a modern error. Read books from the 1920s-1940s. Many have three or more spaces after a period, and are EASIER TO READ. How can you say that making your material harder to read (by using a single space after your period) is correct? You are wrong, and wrong-minded.

  • Clair Ossian says:

    Two spaces make any document easier to read. The beginning and end of each sentence is easier to see. One space looks just like the one space beween words. I vote for two spaces, though I lose in todays edting.

  • Del says:

    I learnt to touch type with the double-space at the end of a sentence in the ’70’s. It is difficult to stop the habit. Especially as I think it makes reading easier, I think our eye likes white space, time to take a breath. However, times change.

  • Who cares except the grammar nerds. One or two is the scheme of things. But I guess in my 76K word count novel that will addup to a lot of spaces. Save paper and save the planet…

  • Wendy says:

    In grade school (yes, we had a basic touch-typing class in sixth grade), I was taught to double space. I have a late-1980’s word processor that automatically double-spaces after a period. In college, I majored in technical communications, graduating in the late 1990’s. We TC’s were taught that you double-space after a period when using non-proportional (i.e. “primitive typewriter”) fonts, and single-space when using proportional fonts. Keep in mind that back in the DOS days, fonts were more often stored in the printer than the PC, and printers included non-proportional daisy-wheel impact printers.

    I took a Word-usage test for a temp agency around 1996, and, knowing most fonts used were proportional by then, single-spaced my test passage. The testing software flagged them all as “wrong” for not double-spacing. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a non-proportional font when you want one (aside from the over-the-top Courier New).

    So as to whether it’s appropriate: it depends on your font.
    As to whether Word flags it one way or the other: it depends on what version you’re using.

  • I learned touch typing in the 60’s. That’s right, the 60’s, not the 70’s and if you put only one space after a period, you would be marked down for it. Every mistake reduced your words-per-minute typing speed, an important measure for those anticipating jobs as typists or secretaries. The best wpm meant the highest salaries. So when it is money in your pocket, you tend to do it the way expected. But having touch typed for so many DECADES, it is an automatic thing, I do not think anymore about the typing, same as when one walks one does not consciously count steps or tell ourselves another step now… it just happens. So, to try to forget the double-space after a period is very hard. Very hard. Very hard. Very hard. Having said that, I do find now that sometimes I space twice, other times just once. And not conscious either way.

  • I also have been using one space for decades, per AP style. As a journalism intern waaay back when, I once submitted a story with two spaces between sentences.

    I never, ever made that mistake again.

  • For thirty years, all the magazines I’ve written for, plus traditional book editors, have used the Chicago Manual of Style with one space after each sentence. So bear that in mind, if you’re going for traditional publishing vs. self-publishing.

  • Luke Fortune says:

    This debate came up several years ago among my colleagues, in a rather spirited fashion. I maintain that white space is good for the reader. As an earlier model of Generation X, I learned on a typewriter, and have found it difficult to not hammer that space bar twice after the period. Or even the colon. In my journalism class, way back in the last century, I remember the instructor telling us that the one space evolved to save that little bit of extra room in the newspaper to cumulatively fit in one more advertisement. I don’t think that’s true, but he’s dead, and I’m not going to argue. Lastly, as trivia, regardless of font, the spaces vary between words as en and em spaces. Something I’m sure those of you with desktop publishing experience know.

  • Julia Grange says:

    I was a professionally-trained secretary (mid-70s) and have always done the double space. Hard to break old habits. But I do think 2 spaces makes for slightly easier reading. I’ve put 2 in at the end of the 1st sentence and 1 at the end of the 2nd. I guess if a client had a house style of 1 space, that’s what I would use.

  • Del says:

    I also learned to type that way, in the 70’s. It will difficult to change since we were timed and it is a habit.

  • Gayle says:

    In the graphic design world it has always been one space after a period. I’ve never put two spaces after a period in my writing. Ever!

  • Eladio Soto Roldan says:

    So, I can see me now scampering back through all the mss in my files and making the corrections that will bring my writing to correctness. ALL OF IT!!! I needed a little lark. Thank you.

  • I’ve been following AP Style — including the one-space-after-the-period rule — since my corporate America days in the late 1980s. If you’re a professional journalist, you do it.

  • Rosemary says:

    The real problem I have with single space after a period is when I use an abbreviation and the following word starts with a capital letter and I haven’t finished the sentence! You know, for example, if etc. Is used – need I say more!?

  • Neil Larkins says:

    I learned the double space in typing class in 1961. (Yes, I’m that old.) Why was it done? Best I recall is that it was professional, neater and easier to read…and that’s the way it is and has always been. Period. (Incidentally, the ellipsis, three periods, was frowned upon, only used by the uneducated.)

  • Mitchell says:

    Here’s the deal. ‘WORD’ has not decided spacing. Word is written by humans and some development team that works on Word has deemed themselves important enough to be grammar police and enforce their choices into their product. Their opinion is no better or worse than yours or anybody else’s.
    Space however you feel is correct to you.

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