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Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy
Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy

How Many Spaces Should There Be at the End of a Sentence?

Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy
Thinkstock/Erin McCarthy

The question of whether you should put one or two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence elicits strong reactions on both sides. On the one-space side, this 2011 Slate article by Farhad Manjoo (which currently has over 800,000 Facebook likes) lays out the argument for why “typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.” Basically, it comes down to aesthetics, with Manjoo maintaining that “one space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing.” The two-space side, however, has its own idea of what’s visually pleasing, as forcefully argued in this comment to the Chicago Manual of Style Online:

About two spaces after a period. As a U.S. Marine, I know that what’s right is right and you are wrong. I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period. If you refuse to alter your bullheadedness, I will petition the commandant to allow me to take one Marine detail to conquer your organization and impose my rule. Thou shalt place two spaces after a period. Period. Semper Fidelis.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends, as most modern style guides do, the one-space rule.

Why is this a question?

The reason there is a conflict about this at all is because things changed. Early standards for typesetting used a larger space after sentences than between words. The space between sentences was an emspace, or the width of a capital M, and the space between words was one-third of that. You can see the difference in this excerpt from the 1910 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (which at that time endorsed the larger space after sentences):

For a few hundred years, the whole issue of text spacing was the province of printers and typesetters, and the average writer never had to think about it. Then along came the typewriter, and suddenly everyone could produce printed texts. The emspace spacing standard was approximated on the typewriter by using one space after words and two after sentences. And everybody learned to type that way.

But in the middle of the 20th century, the standard started to change. New typesetting technology used by printing companies made it easier and more economical to print texts with uniform spacing. People got used to seeing this style of printed text, and many thought it looked cleaner and better. But not everyone thought so, and a conflict was born. Plus, typists had gotten used to a double-spacing thumb action that was hard to unlearn, and was transferred, through typing teachers, to the next few generations. So even when people didn’t care one way or the other about the spacing in the texts they read, when they themselves were doing the typing, they preferred to stick with the way they learned it.

Which is better?

Some people think the double space looks messy because it leaves holes and “rivers” in blocks of text. Some people think the double space makes it easier to process sentence breaks. Some people think it’s easier to type one space, because why do something twice when you can do it once? Some people think it’s easier to type two spaces because that’s how they learned it. It would seem, then, that the spacing question is a matter of opinion. Certainly, as the Economist’s Prospero Blog points out, it is not a matter of grammar. It doesn’t have as much to do with language as it does with typing, or graphic design.

Still, even if you don’t have any opinion on the matter, when you’re typing something up, you’ve got to choose one or the other. If you are writing for someone to whom it matters—your boss, your editor, your teacher, your grandma—then you should use the standard they prefer (or the style guide they follow).

These days, the two-space style is sometimes preferred for pre-publication manuscripts (e.g., as stipulated in the American Psychological Association publication guidelines), but most work is published with the one-space style. If you’re texting on your iPhone you can have it both ways—a quick double-space with your thumb will come out as a period with one space after it. That shortcut pairs the traditional typing action with the modern look, reconciling both factions through technology, the very thing that drove the wedge between them in the first place.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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