Courier's reign

Filed under Musings;
1 comment.

Farhad Manjoo is pretty worked up over a trivial matter. For Slate Magazine, he ranted why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. This 1,486-word typographical diatribe is rampant with the same form of sure-mindedness its author finds so belligerent in his opposition: "What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers. It's their certainty that they're right."

The difference is that Mr. Manjoo claims to have history on his side:

Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

With this evolution to support him, Manjoo insists that anyone still using two spaces is a prehistoric troglodyte still reliant on ancient technology to string words into sentences.

But wait! Manjoo does provide some allowance: the Courier font. Although rarely seen on modern computing platforms, Courier was the default (and, in fact, only) font offered by AppleWorks Classic on the Apple II. In such an environment, it makes sense to distinguish a non-sentence-ending period from another.

Those who have migrated to other platforms may have since adapted their style to the variety of fonts the Macintosh made standard a quarter-century ago. Obstinate authors weaned on the Apple II who insist on computers adapting to their users and not vice versa have instead customized their environments to maintain a continuity that began with the Apple II.

For me, this means changing Apple Mail's default font to Courier — and I don't think it took any editing for my blogging tool, MarsEdit, to default to Menlo, also a non-proportional font. Once published, my blog posts appear in a proportional font, but WordPress, which powers this site, automatically displays those double spaces as a single. I can therefore preserve my workflow while presenting content that's appropriate to its context.

MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.

MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.

Every writer has his or her own quirks, from spaces after a period, to "built-in" or "inbuilt", to whether or not punctuation goes within or without quotation marks. It's the writer's responsibility to offer writing that is consistent with the style of the intended publication, if one is to be both employable and likable as a writer.

But to go on a moralistic rampage about the sins of extraneous whitespace is unnecessary … though perhaps good for page views: over one thousand responses have furthered this controversy thus far.

Do you think the Apple II has played a role in perpetuating this archaic typeset pattern?

  1. Jeff Blakeney says:

    I don't think the Apple II has much to do with "perpetuating this archaic typeset pattern". The extra space, as far as I've ever known, what to simply make the break between sentences stand out a little more. I've never heard anything about it being based on using monospaced text.

    In my mind, if you were going to skip adding the extra space you should do it with monospaced text and not the other way around. A monospaced period and space are the same width so you end up with more whitespace between sentences than you would with a proportional period and space because those characters are both thinner than many other characters. Also, while reading your blog post, I noticed that the comma is about two pixels taller than a period so one could easily mistake a comma followed by a single space as a period and vice versa.

    With this kind of thinking it seems likely that people will soon be saying that the extra white space between paragraphs, either indenting the first line or leaving a blank line, is archaic and shouldn't be used. However, it serves the same purpose which is to make the break between sentences or paragraphs stand out a little more to the reader.

    By the way, on one of my PCs I've set up Notepad and my e-mail program to use the A2like TrueType font that came with FishWings. It is a monospaced font based on the Apple II display font. I just haven't gotten around to setting it up on my other PC because it is to be reformatted soon.