Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo has an interesting jeremiad against the practice of putting two spaces after the end of sentence punctuation, which he argues is a holdover from the days of monospace font typewriters and is no longer necessary now that computers can do proper kerning for us. I find his case convincing enough to try and break myself of the two-space habit, which is a lot harder than you might think. But what I’m interested in here is the following quote:
When I pointed out that [two-space aficionados] were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. “Who says two spaces is wrong?” they wanted to know.
Typographers, that’s who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences.
This is rank prescriptivism, usually the kind of thing that gives linguists like myself fits. If there is consensus among typists that two spaces should follow a period, then that is the correct way to do it by definition. One of the joys of language is its bottom-up untamability. People are going to communicate in whatever way is best for them to communicate, prissy, irrelevant, self-appointed authority figures be damned. And yet, in this case I’m on the side of the typographers whose expert judgement I am willing to defer to even to the point of retraining my muscle memory as to how many taps of the spacebar should follow this period right here. Sure, saying what visual layout is best for communication is a subjective claim, but it’s also what these people do for a living.
The difference, of course, is that here we’re talking about writing instead of speech, and writing is a different animal. Writing is formally learned, not gleaned by osmosis. Speech is something every child with normal brain function acquires within a few years of being born, while most people throughout history have been quite happily illiterate. I’m not saying anything new here, so if you want to hear more go take an introductory linguistics class. And then to list of differences you’d learn there add my hypothesis that its difficulty of acquisition makes writing a fundamentally less self-organizing system than speech, so it makes sense to offload the prescribing work to a subset of the whole language community.