Entr’acte: please DON’T just take my word for it

After yesterday’s post, a reader wrote in to take issue with my stand about the burning issue of whether the language has, without the intervention of the English professors of the world, spontaneously changed to require only one space between sentences and after colons, rather than two. And, as you may perhaps be able to tell from that last sentence, it’s a topic upon which, as an editor, I have some fairly strong feelings.

After I was well into my fourth page of response, it occurred to me that the comment sections aren’t subject-searchable. So I’m going to put off the next installment in my series on how and why standard format is so easily recognizable to professional readers in order to devote an entire post to the issue, where future readers will be able to track it down.

Fasten your seatbelts; I’m about to go to town.

Every time I do a post on standard format, readers write in to tell me that the rules have changed, on this point or on others. And frankly, they SHOULD be commenting, if they believe I have misspoken, or even if they feel a particular point requires further elucidation: false modesty aside, quite a few people do read this blog on a regular basis, and the last thing that I want to do is lead anyone astray inadvertently.

So please, folks, keep sending in those constructive comments.

Apart from the community-support reason to ask follow-up questions, there is another, more self-interested reason that you should consider giving a shout if you think I’ve just told a real whopper: no writer, aspiring or otherwise, should apply a rule to her book without understanding WHY its application is a good idea.

Yes, even with something as basic as standard format. If a particular suggestion doesn’t make sense to you, PLEASE don’t do it just because I say so. Do it because you have thought about it and decided that trying it might help you market your writing.

I know, I know: life would be a whole lot easier if it came with a foolproof set of directions, and nowhere it that more true than in one’s first approaches to the publishing industry. It’s definitely confusing to a newcomer, fraught with unspoken expectations and counterintuitive requirements. As someone who has spent a lifetime around it, I could just give you a list of standard format requirements, dust off my hands, and traipse off to finish my holiday shopping.

That’s not my style, however. I like to take the time to explain the rules, both to render submission less of a big, ugly mystery and to give my readers a chance to make up their minds for themselves. Call me wacky, but in the long run, I think my way helps people more than pronouncements from on high.

Speaking of pronouncements from on high, my correspondent began, charmingly, by quoting one of mine:

“In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen a manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. ”

Have you heard of a manuscript being rejected for using only ONE space between sentences? Within the past five years or so?

Isn’t that a trenchant question? Isn’t it about time I stopped yammering about the desirability of discussion and got around to answering it?

Here’s the short answer: rejected SOLELY upon that basis, no; criticized as unprofessional, yes, often. Knocked out of finalist consideration as contest entries, absolutely. And I’ve certainly heard it listed among several equally subtle points that led to rejection at agencies; basically, like the other minor restrictions of standard format, it’s contributes to the sense that a writer just doesn’t know the ropes.

The irony, of course, is that the sources that claim the language HAS changed — and permanently, at that — tend to insist that skipping the second space after a period or colon, as our dear old white-headed English teachers taught us to do, automatically stamps a manuscript old-fashioned, obsolete, and generally silly.

How do they justify this? The logic, as I understand it, runs thus: since printed books, magazines, newspapers, and to a great extent the Internet have been omitting these spaces in recent years, the language must therefore have changed. So much so that not only is leaving out the second space now permissible — which it definitely was not until very recently; Paula’s estimate of the last five years is pretty accurate — omitting it is now REQUIRED.

That sounds very serious, doesn’t it? Scary, even. The problem is, if it is required, why isn’t the industry enforcing it in the ways that formatting restrictions are generally enforced, by agents and editors asking writers to change their submissions accordingly?

I’m not being flippant about this: while this rather radical formatting rule change has been popping up in a lot of fora that give advice to aspiring writers over the past five years, the actual practices of the industry have seemed to be the engine behind the change. I have literally never seen (or heard) an argument in favor of omitting the second space made by anyone who works within the publishing industry.

At least not about MANUSCRIPTS.

Printed books, yes — and here, I think, is where the confusion lies, because many publishers have made this change in their newer releases. Essentially, the proponents of eliminating the second space between sentences are arguing that what one sees in print is what one should reproduce on the manuscript page.

As I pointed out yesterday, publishers have made this shift in order to save paper. Which, as those of you who followed this summer’s Book Marketing 101 series already know, is most emphatically NOT the goal of manuscript format, which aims toward ease of reading and hand-editing.

Omitting that second space does, as I mentioned yesterday, render it considerably harder to write corrections on hard copy. It may not seem like a lot of room, but believe me, when you’re trying to make four grammatical changes within a single sentence legibly, any extra bit of white space is a boon.

Hey, carrots are room-consuming. So are scrawls that read confusingexpand this, or Aristotle who?, all of which editors have bestowed upon my manuscripts at one time or another.

I suspect that the underlying assumption of the second-space elimination movement is that editing on hard copy has gone the way of the dinosaur (it hasn’t), just because it is now feasible to send and edit manuscripts electronically. But just because it is technically POSSIBLE to eliminate paper from the process doesn’t mean that it occurs in practice all the time, or even very often.

Remember when Internet-based shopping first became popular, and technology enthusiasts assured us all confidently that the supermarket and shopping mall would be obsolete within a decade? Turns out that a lot of people still wanted to squeeze melons and try on clothes before they bought them. Who knew?

Also, for the argument that the extra spaces are obsolete to makes sense on a practical level — or, at minimum, to generate the levels of resentment amongst agents and editors that its proponents predict — the industry would have to expect that every submission would be camera-ready. In other words, in EXACTLY the format that it would appear in the finished book.

Seeing a problem here?

As those of you who have been following the current See For Yourself series are already aware, standard format for MANUSCRIPTS has little to do with how BOOKS are formatted. As I have been demonstrating for the past few days, manuscripts differ in many important respects from the format the Chicago Manual tells us to expect in a published book, or that AP style urges us to produce in a magazine or newspaper.

Which prompts me to ask: is it really so astonishing that spacing would also differ? And why would a change in publishing practice necessarily alter what professional readers expect to see in a manuscript — especially when that alteration would unquestionably make their jobs harder?

And that, in case you were interested, is why I don’t embrace the practice of eliminating the second space between sentences in manuscripts. Until I see strong evidence that agents, editors, and contest judges frown upon the extra space, I’m going to continue to recommend it.

So there.

I can certainly understand why aspiring writers who had gone the single-space route would be miffed at this juncture, though; changing that fundamental an aspect of a text could eat up a LOT of time. As, indeed, my insightful correspondent pointed out:

It took a lot of effort to train myself to STOP using the two spaces. It’s one of those grammatical rules that seems to have all but disappeared (much like the rather perplexing fad to omit the comma before the word “too”). If it’s necessary, I suppose there’s an easy “find and replace” way to correct my manuscript to add an additional space between sentences?

I’m very glad that the commenter brought up the comma elimination fad, because it provides a perfect parallel to what has happened with the spaces. Just because a rule of grammar’s relaxation becomes common doesn’t mean that the rule itself has disappeared; it just means that breaking the rule has become marginally more acceptable.

For instance, these days, few people other than my mother would stop a conversation in order to correct a speaker who referred to “everyone and their beliefs,” but technically, it remains incorrect. To preserve subject-object agreement, it should be “everyone and his beliefs” or “everyone and her beliefs.” The reason for this shift is primarily sociological, I suspect: when American businesses (and television writers) began to take active steps to make language more friendly to women, the incorrect version sounded less sexist, and thus became widely accepted.

Does that mean that “everyone and their beliefs” magically became grammatically correct overnight? Not on your life. And the better-educated the intended reader- or listenership for the sentence, the more likely that the error will raise hackles.

Had I mentioned that Millicent, along with pretty much everyone who works in her agency, was probably an English major? Heck, she probably wrote her senior thesis on this kind of colloquial speech.

The fact is, the grammatical rule about the requisite number of spaces between sentences and after colons HASN’T changed — the PRACTICE has in many published works; in manuscripts, academic work (almost always the last to accept any sea change in the language), and private writing, the rule most emphatically has not.

And, as with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, while most people won’t care, the ones who DO care feel very strongly about it indeed. To them, it’s more serious than formatting: it’s a matter of literacy.

That may seem harsh, given that most of the aspiring writers who have embraced this practice report that they are doing it because some apparently authoritative source told them to make the switch — but tellingly, those sources’ certainty on the matter didn’t stop howls of protest from the professional reading community when Miss Snark (among others) suddenly started advising aspiring writers to leave it out. The result was pretty dramatic: mysteriously, half the submissions agents received were harder to read, and the change happened more or less overnight — and since most agents don’t read even the major writing blogs, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

How loud were those howls, you ask? Suffice it to say that the grumbles continue to this day. No one who edits text for a living would vote for this particular change. To professional eyes, it just looks wrong.

To get return to my correspondent’s last comment, I don’t know of an easy way to make the change universally, alas; Word’s grammar checker currently accepts both single and double spaces between sentences as correct, treating it as a stylistic choice rather than a grammatical one. (If the language had actually changed to require only a single space, presumably Word would follow, eventually.) Like most of the population, the good folks at Microsoft seem perplexed by the dual standard.

Yes, it’s a pain for the writer — but as you have probably already noticed, the industry is not exactly set up to minimize effort for writers. Sorry. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest.

If anyone reading this HAS figured out a simple way to make the change universally throughout a document, PLEASE write in and share it with the rest of us. Aspiring writers the world over will bless your name, and who wouldn’t want that?

A wiser person would probably sign off now, but I’m going to bite the bullet and bring up the question that is probably on many, many minds at this juncture: barring a flash of insight from a reader or a well-timed act of celestial intervention, could you get away with retaining the single-space convention in a document already written?

As you may have gathered, I would not advise it, especially in a contest submission. However, it really is up to the individual writer. As much as writers would LIKE for there to be a single standard upon which every single person in the industry agreed, it just doesn’t happen. There are exceptions in what individual agents and editors want; you might strike lucky.

If you DO decide to go the single-space route (picture me rending my garments here), make absolutely certain that your manuscript has NO other problems that might trigger Millicent’s ire. Also, be prepared for an agent to ask to make the change before the manuscript is submitted to editors — and, if asked, do it cheerfully and without explaining at length why you originally embraced the single-space practice.

Not that YOU would do such a thing, of course, but for those who don’t know better: agents and editors tend not to be amused when writers of first books lecture them on how the industry has changed, and they should change with it.

And this is definitely an instance where folks outside the industry have been making pronouncements about how the industry should operate for quite a while. Even if you are completely polite in how you express it, chances are that the last writer who made the case to Millicent’s boss was not.

The word Luddite may actually have been uttered.

One more caveat before I sign off: I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the ONLY reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem– which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. So changing the spaces between sentences alone probably isn’t going to be the magic bullet that results in instant acceptance.

Whatever course you decide to pursue, though, make it YOUR decision — and stick to it. Don’t leap to make every change you hear rumored to be an agent’s pet peeve unless you are relatively certain in your heart of hearts that implementing it will make your manuscript a better book.

Yes, even if the suggestion in question came from yours truly. It’s your manuscript, not mine.

Thanks for the great question, Paula, and everybody, keep up the good work!

32 Replies to “Entr’acte: please DON’T just take my word for it”

  1. Microsoft Word’s “find-and-replace” tool will allow you to make this change (I just tested it on my 169-page manuscript–the change made it 170 pages), BUT it adds the extra space after EVERY period so that you end up with 2 spaces after abbreviated words like “Mr.” I suppose if one is going to do this, it’s easier to make the global change and then go back through the manuscript and delete the extra space after such abbreviated words.

    1. You can catch nearly everything with these find-changes:


      where the underscore is a space, and understanding that you should then search for abbreviations like “Mrs.__” to fix them.

      1. Ooh — thanks for jumping in and testing, Susan! Did you enter period + space to be searched? (Entering just a space would result in a nightmare, I should imagine.)

        1. Laurels to ACD! What an immensely clever solution. I shall have to think of some appropriate reward, over and above the undying glory.

          I would add :_ to the list, as that’s one that often gets missed.

  2. Anne,

    I wish I had discovered your blog earlier.

    I am old enough to have cut my teeth on typewriters. My high school even had really lousy manual typewriters that if you tried typing too fast, multiple keys would strike simultaneously causing you to stop typing and physically move them back to the “home” position.

    Typewriter erasers, Liquid Paper, self-correcting typewriters, as well as Selectrics with removable elements, are all things I used in my youth and early adulthood.

    I also remember having to do math in order to properly format business letters. Oh and centering was such a joy because you had to utilize the backspace and math!

    So I sympathize with Paula’s comment about retraining fingers to only use one space at the end of sentences rather than two.

    Because prior to reading your passionate discourse on this subject, I had been influenced by other voices who suggested that the new industry standard was only one space after a period.

    I actually went back into my manuscript and changed everything due to that advice as well as trying to retrain my fingers to not type the second space after the end of a sentence.

    Oh, and when I did a global replace for some reason my computer really, really did not like me. It wound up creating five spaces after every period.


    I had to manually go in and change every single period to remove the four extra spaces.

    So now I shall at some point in the future go back and restore the second space after periods that I so diligently removed previously.

    GRRRR. Which is why I wish that when I had looked for advice on this topic that I had found you at that time rather than the “other voices.”

    I had also been persuaded by them to think that I needed to use Courier rather than my preferred Times New Roman. That change swelled my manuscript from close to 475 pages to well over 600 pages with no real discernable improvement to the text. It just wastes more paper IMHO, and I don’t like the look.

    Thank you for reassuring me that TNR12 is acceptable and for not treating the 1 space versus 2 controversy as being a question to be summarily dismissed with a snarky gin-soaked rejoinder. If omission of the second space after periods actually disturbs industry professionals, we should be made aware of that and act accordingly.

    Thank you for your attention to detail and willingness to share with us your lifetime of knowledge gleaned from being raised by literary professionals.


    (BTW, I enjoyed reading Miss Snark’s blog, but in this case I think she did writers a disservice.)

    1. The good news about going through all the trouble of switching: once you get used to it, it’s going to make proofing and editing your own work much, much easier.

      I remember doing the math, too, Linda — my parents started sitting me down in front of a behemoth Olivetti in elementary school and insisting that I (a) learn to type toute suite and (b) produce my school papers in standard format. They were then kind enough to go and explain to my teachers what standard format was, and why any sane person would induce a child to use it.

      Ah, childhood…

      Your comment about the snarky, gin-soaked response made me laugh, because it’s definitely an impulse that I did not figure out early enough in my blogging life that I should be resisting — because actually, the comments that provoke that response are usually aimed at something I SHOULD have discussed at greater length. And they’re very, very good for reminding me that what I’m expressing here is my opinion, and I should have to justify it.

    2. L.C., could you be more specific as to how you added an extra space with MS Word Find and Replace. I have Word 2003 and wasn’t able to see how to do it. I’m one of those who changed MS to single space. Thanks, and thanks again Anne for setting us straight!

  3. Thank you so much, Anne, for this thoughtful reply. I’ve been wondering about this formatting issue for a while now, and it certainly helps to read why this (or that) grammatical rule is still important in the publishing world. I will now make a determined effort to re-introduce the double-spaces back into my typing life!

    And, again, thank you so much for your response. I hope I didn’t sound petulant or combative (because that certainly was not my intent).

    I love your blog. You have helped me with so much. Thanks!

    1. You didn’t come across as petulant or combative at all, Paula: you really honed in on the important points. I would bet a nickel that there are many, many readers out there now (and more in future) who are silently thanking you for bringing it up.

      It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that this issue needed its own post. It’s the kind of thing professional readers complain about amongst themselves, forgetting that formatting really isn’t self-evident — which, as I need to keep reminding myself, is precisely why we should be talking about it here.

  4. My own formatting history seems to parallel Linda’s. I learned to type in the eighth grade with heavy manual typewriters. The idea of two spaces after a period was so ingrained that I still do it without thinking. Besides the momentary diversion to Courier, I also fell into the belief of no indentation and an extra line between paragraphs. I believe I found that in a book on how to get published. The author(s) may have been talking about something else which I misconstrued as referring to “standard format.”
    I still confuse myself on the computer keyboard occasionally, in that I harken back to the typewriter days when the period and comma keys were the same in both upper and lower case. I end up with > and

    1. Perhaps there is a software function with the arrow keys (left and right) that prevented the remainder of my comment from going through. I tried to resend the entire thing, but the blog program identified it as the same comment. Then I deleted the first part down to where it stops, and nothing at all went through. I ended up mentioning remembering using lower case “ell” for “one,” and an apostrophe and period for an exclamation point.

      1. It’s amazing how the body retains memory, isn’t it, Dave? The old family Olivetti had been refurbished to include French accent marks — and to this day, even though I know perfectly well the keyboard command for some of those accents, I still find myself reaching for those old keys.

  5. If anyone reading this HAS figured out a simple way to make the change universally throughout a document, PLEASE write in and share it with the rest of us. Aspiring writers the world over will bless your name, and who wouldn’t want that?

    Looks like I’m late to the party on this, as I see that many other people have chimed in with ideas on this, but I made a post on how to do this.

    I hadn’t thought of the abbreviations angle, since I don’t tend to use those much in prose, but I do have solutions for a few other issues that haven’t already been mentioned here.

    1. I’m totally blown away by your and ACD’s generosity in doing this! What good community members you are! Thank you SO much — I’m sure that many, many readers will be most grateful for this.

      As am I, of course. I’m going to gush about this in my next post, I can feel it.

  6. Christopher, you are a North Carolina wonder! Thanks so much for doing this. I am directing my writer friends to your post on your web site. With gratitude from a fellow Tarheel.

    1. No problem, Susan! I’m just really glad it’s useful to you. Glad to run into a fellow North Carolinian out in the blogosphere!

      By the way, Dave, I know what cut off the rest of your comment. It looks like you were typing left and right carrots < &rt;. The blog comments here (and most places) are treated as raw html, and so that causes issues. I actually did a post about this back in June. Hope that helps!

      1. Oops, I had a typo in my code there. Should have looked like this: < >. Just so that you can see that this trick does indeed work on Anne’s blog, as it would anywhere else.

  7. Thanks as well Christopher! I just hope that I remember it the next time I decide to use “carrots” in a comment. It might well be another year or more!

    Are we setting any sort of record for the number of comments to any one post?

  8. Only typing one space after a period was a huge problem for me and I had no idea how to fix it except go through each one. After reading these comments, I am thrilled!!! Thank you everyone who mentioned the find and replace! You have saved me a bunch of time! And stress!

  9. I’m really tickled that this has turned into such a good holiday present for so many people, Tarheels and otherwise. And all because Paula asked a really good question. I love when this happens, because it makes me feel vindicated for the fuss I kept making during my first year blogging, when the Organization That Shall Not Be Named refused to allow comments to be posted. There’s just no substitute for discussion, is there?

    What did we all do before blogs?

    (And yes, Dave, this one IS a record — the infamous discussion about whether I should be discussing agents’ sales records topped out at 17.)

    1. Well, let’s set the record a little higher then! Besides, one of mine never came through, so…
      I hope that your many other readers have had a chance to check out Christopher’s blog. I went through it to find his posting about the problem that I apparently had had. It’s really a neat site, Christopher!

  10. Thanks, Dave!

    And, actually, I have another small question on this topic, Anne. I know that you put the extra space after a colon, and not after a semicolon. But what about after an ellipsis? My guess is not… but I’m not entirely sure if the ellipsis is always considered a separator between two sentences, like with a colon, or if its usage is sometimes that of a separator of clauses, like a semicolon. My feeling has always been the latter, which makes the issue a bit muddled for me. Can you explain the correct usage? (I hope this is a simple question, and not a four-pager!)


    1. Technically, an ellipsis marks a pause within a single thought, not the end of one and the beginning of another. So it should be punctuated…accordingly, with no spaces at either end. (Although I notice that my blogging program doesn’t like that spacing much.)

      It’s also used to indicate where a piece has been left out of a longer quote, to show that the skip is intentional. As in, “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers…shall not perish from this earth.”

      In the 1970s, however, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen popularized something he liked to call “three-dot journalism,” which entailed separating UNRELATED thoughts with ellipses like this… Ostensibly, this was to indicate that the voice trailed off before the new thought began; presumably, then, this was punctuation appropriate to dialogue, rather than narrative prose.

      This meant, much to the chagrin of grammar-minded readers, that Mssr. Caen’s ellipsis was in fact ending one sentence and beginning another, as indicated by the skipped space between the end of the ellipsis and the beginning of the next sentence — which, as becomes a new sentence, begins with a capital letter. (As opposed to, say, the first word after a colon.) As such, the ellipsis with a space after it passed into dubious currency as an alternative to a period for narrative passages that are aping speech.

      I’m a purist, myself…I don’t use the space after the ellipsis.

      1. Wow, thanks for the clarification there, Anne! I had no idea about that distinction. I’ve always used the ellipsis in both manners that you describe, with a space always following it. Either way, at least I now know for sure that there aren’t TWO spaces following it, but I’m not sure what I’ll do about the rest. Since I do use it both ways, it seems like not using the space after the ellipsis will look wrong in some cases. No one has ever commented on my usage of ellipsis spacing before, so this is something I’ll have to mull. Thanks for the great information!

        1. When in doubt, I’d go for using the ellipsis the original way, with no spaces at all afterward. Lots and lots of authorities to back one up on that.

          The problem, of course, is that we all get so used to seeing incorrect grammar and spelling that it starts to look right: witness the rise of capitalization immediately after a colon. People laughed very hard at Dan Quayle’s spelling of tomato, but for years afterward, one saw it misspelled that way on signs in produce departments.

          The rise of the grammar and spell-checker, too, have caused skills to atrophy. One doesn’t have to rely upon them for very long to fall into the to-an-editor-appalling habit of expecting to be told what is correct, rather than relying upon a learned rule to figure out an individual case.

          Writing isn’t a passive act, and neither is the application of grammar, but the technology encourages us to rely upon observation of others’ choices — which are very often incorrect — rather than making up our own minds based upon logic.

  11. At the rate we are going, this should be the all time record setter for the number of comments to one particular post.
    I seem to remember that it was potato that Dan Quayle misspelled. I could be wrong. That does happen now and then. If only he had added an “s.”
    Happy Holidays, everybody!

    1. Was it potato? Entirely possible; my recollection is probably skewed by all of those signs in the produce sections of markets.

      See? This is how legends mutate over time.

  12. Definitely potato. Thanks for the clarification, though, Anne. And I do not use the grammar checker, for precisely the reasons you mention. It’s better to succeed or fail on my own, I feel. Of course, spell check is a lot more rote, and still a godsend. I’ll switch to using ellipses the original way.

  13. What about the fact that most word processors and publishing software automatically adds more space after a period? It does the work for you.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t completely understand your question, Wendy. Do you mean that if someone has not added the second space, it’s fairly easy to do a universal search-and-replace in Word to add a second space? Or are you talking about some sort of macro that may be applied to Word? Or even some other word processing program?

      Personally, I’m against that ever-revolving array of software that claims to do all of the formatting for the writer. There’s a reason that those types of programs (and macros) tend not to be around for long, after all. There is a standard software for screenplays, of course, but for book manuscripts, it seems like overkill. Yes, they can be helpful at first (although PC users seem to find them more helpful than Mac users, perhaps because Word is easier to use on a Mac than on a PC), but once a writer knows what a manuscript should look like, they’re not necessary.

      Besides, once a writer gets into the habit of formatting a page correctly, it’s just a waste of her energy to do anything else. It honestly isn’t all that time-consumin

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