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Why You Shouldn't Trust the New Study That Supports Putting Two Spaces After a Period

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Writers, style guides, and people who spend a lot of time reading generally agree that one space after a period is highly preferable to two, but there remains a small group of people who refuse to let go of this convention left over from the typewriter era. Now, two-space devotees have a scientific study on their side. As The Verge reports, a new paper from Skidmore College psychologists suggests that adding two spaces after each period makes text easier to read.

For the study, researchers gathered 60 college students and had them write out a paragraph to determine if they were one-spacers or two-spacers. Next, they asked them to read a sample text while wearing eye-tracking devices. They found that subjects who read the paragraphs styled with two spaces spent less time focusing on the punctuation at the end of each sentence (likely because the extra space made it clearer where the sentence stopped). Students who used two spaces in their own writing read faster when given the two-spaced text.

But don't expect the new findings to shake up style standards any time soon. The study authors admit that while reading text with just one space after each sentence leads to more time spent scanning for periods, the effects are minimal. People in the one-space camp read the paragraphs just as fast regardless of how the text was styled, and the difference in spacing didn't impact reading comprehension in either group. The researchers also used a monospaced font for the study, which may be good for an experiment that requires consistency, but isn't exactly representative of the fonts readers encounter in everyday life.

The question of spacing is as old as typesetting itself. The first printers had two space sizes: a regular one for separating words and a slightly larger one—the emspace—for separating sentences. When typewriters hit the scene, the emspace was replaced with two spaces, and this style of writing was standard for decades. A divide emerged with the advent of more advanced typesetting technology around the mid-1900s. It got easier for printing companies to achieve uniform spacing, and adding two spaces after periods, which many people agree looks sloppy and jarring, started to fall out of fashion. But while the typewriter has disappeared from desks, the two-space method has stuck around. This new study suggests it will likely be with us for a bit longer.

[h/t The Verge]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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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This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million
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Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]

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