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

by | Apr 30, 2020

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