Back in mid-April, I devoted a column to new grammatical suggestions that are being bandied about by those who want to change some old-fashioned writing rules (i.e. omitting apostrophes, using textspeak, and avoiding capitalization). While the jury is still out on this debate, I came across a related piece, written by James Hamblin, for the May 11 edition of The Atlantic. I suppose the jury will also be out on this one. And who knows what’s next? Perhaps a discussion about whether or not to adhere to the rules of spelling, eliminating paragraph indentations, or using lower case for the first words in sentences.
Hamblin’s title, “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After A Period,” pretty much sums up his central point–namely, that science has found that two spaces following a period makes for better reading. And, as you can imagine, there are those who are aghast that anyone would suggest such a radical, perhaps even immoral idea. So, let’s see what all the fuss is about. First of all, let’s conduct a little experiment. You will soon be reading three sentences that feature two spaces after each sentence. You be the judge about whether this aids your comprehension. So, here goes. I suspect that all this discussion about written language is occasioned by fears that we are losing the art of writing. We indeed live in a world filled with “fake news” and distrust of those who make writing (and thinking) their profession, so it’s only logical (as if that matters much anymore) that there would be some serious debate about the usefulness of language. Who would have thought simple sentences would get people so stirred up?
Following this line of reasoning, Hamblin prefaces his piece with the observation that “This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surround geopolitical discourse–so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desentizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death. One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.” Fortunately, we should doubt that anyone might die if we start observing the two space rule. Of course, we should never underestimate the fury of writing instructors.
For the sake of his credibility, Hamblin points out that the two-space suggestion is backed by some serious research conducted by Skidmore College and appearing in the April issue of the intimidating journal “Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics.” When I read the word, “Psychophysics” I can’t help but wonder if it refers to a blending of psychology and physics or psychos doing physics. Let’s hope it is the latter, which sounds like a lot of fun. In any event, the study concludes that “ . . .among people who write with two spaces after periods–’two spacers’–there was an increase in reading speed of 3 percent when reading text with two spaces following periods, as compared to one. This is . . . .an average of nine additional words per minute about their performance ‘under the one-space conditions.’” So there you have it, a genuine scientific truth. In this fast-paced world in which we live, I suppose we should be concerned about how long it takes a person to read a collection of sentences. In fact, this is such an important consideration that Hamblin emphasizes that this three second improvement in reading speed might seem like an insignificant statistic until we realize that “if a change like this saved even a tiny amount of time, or prevented a tiny amount of miscommunication, the net benefit across billions of people could be enormous.” In fact, “entire economies could be made or broken, wars won or lost.” Wow. Do I detect Hamblin’s tongue planted firmly in his cheek with this observation? Could it be that his entire column is a hoax, designed to make fun of psychophysics and our pretensions about science? Or could it be yet another take on the annoying “Yanny vs. Laurel” social media debate?
Hamblin reminds us, before we get too enamored with this spacing issue, that this study of reading speed used only sixty subjects for the experiment–all college students who were “probably more interested in ‘hooking up’ and ‘Snapchat’ than actually reading.” Yes, this is another vicious attack on those who attend college. Are non-college students never interested in these two activities? But I digress.
In the end, Hamblin asks us to consider this study as “a good exercise in challenging beliefs,” but not one that makes a great deal of difference. Certainly it should not be an issue that “breaks us” but one that causes us to “remember that we are united by the ideals of democracy, freedom, liberty, and justice that we still hold dear, and which demand our allegiance above any person or party or spacing issue.” Who would have thought that a question about one or two spaces could evolve into a test of patriotism?
Before we take our leave to contemplate how many spaces we should add at the ends of our sentences (why not three?), let’s take a moment to celebrate the legacy of Philip Roth, a master of sentences who stopped writing last week. Our language has certainly be enriched by the presence of Roth, and I doubt that matters would be much different if he had used two spaces instead of just one at the ends of his sentences.
See you next week.