English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: A Period Piece

My overlords here at ATL thought it would be fun to run a poll about whether there should be one space or two after a period. As if these things are decided by popularity, rather than by rules. This is strange, really, because just about all of you reading this are lawyers or studying to become lawyers. Better than anyone, lawyers know that we rely on laws and rules to decide what’s what, rather than an American Idol–style unscientific poll (where voters are self-selected and can vote multiple times).

As of this writing (late last night), the score was 65.9% saying “two spaces” to 34.1% saying “one space.” Now I’m no math geek (hence law school), but it looks like nearly two-thirds of you think a period takes two spaces after it.

Are you right, and does it really matter?

No, you’re wrong, if you sided with the majority. And yes, it matters.

It matters not because your readers (judges, clients, opponents, prospects) are experts in typography and usage and grammar and punctuation. It matters because as a lawyer, writing is your craft, so you should use your tools correctly and expertly. It matters because some of your readers might just realize that you made a mistake, and might just think a little less of your attention to detail, or about how much you really care about getting things right.

I know that a single space follows a period (or a question mark, exclamation point, colon, or closing quotation mark or parenthesis) because I frikkin’ looked it up, like any lawyer should. Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has it at Sections 2.9, 2.11, and 6.7. Matthew Butterick’s excellent Typography for Lawyers demonstrates it very well, by showing you how it looks when it’s right (one space) and wrong (two). On the other hand, there are no respected authorities that support a two-space rule. Not a single one.

Two spaces are a convention from the days of typewriters, when letters were monospaced (meaning that every single letter was the same width, even a lowercase i and a capital M.) All works that are professionally typeset use a single space. The same with all text on the web, because browsers ignore multiple spaces in a row. Two spaces are unnecessary when you use a proportional font, which you’re almost certainly using (and should be). Yes, even your stinking Times New Roman.

Look: you don’t have to like it. Maybe you had a crush on your junior-high typing teacher, and she taught you how to hit the space bar twice on your Smith Coronas or IBM Selectrics. Get over it. Unless you’re using an actual typewriter, if you’re putting two spaces between sentences, you’re doing it wrong.

In his book, Butterick deftly handles the common objections to the well-established one-space rule. Here are some examples:

I think two spaces look better so that’s what I’m going to use.
I’m telling you the rule. If you want to put personal taste ahead of the rule, I can’t stop you. But personal taste does not neutralize the rule. It’s like saying “I don’t like how the subjunctive tense sounds, so I’m never going to use it.”

Every lawyer I know uses two spaces.
A core principle of this book is that legal documents are governed by the same rules of typography as any professionally typeset book, newspaper, or magazine. If you agree, then the fact that lawyers habitually diverge from these rules is irrelevant. If you don’t agree, consider giving this book to a friend.

Good arguments can be made for both options.
Except that it’s not a matter of argument. One option has the support of typography authorities and professional practice; one option does not. The issue is not ambiguous.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I must be really hurting for article ideas if I’m batting out a thousand words on spaces between sentences. It’s a fair thought, but it’s not the case. I’m writing this because a minuscule thing like an extra space after a period sheds light on a growing problem among lawyers: a lack of care in our writing that suggests maybe a lack of care, period. (Followed by one space.)

Let me put it to you this way: if I told you that Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins was the case where the guy was trying to board a moving train and dropped a package of explosives (happens all the time) which caused some scales to be thrown down (whatever the hell that means) causing injury to the plaintiff, you might say, “Hey, bozo. You’re thinking of the wrong first-year railroad case. It was Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.” You might be pretty sure of it, or maybe you’re not so sure. But you wouldn’t just rely on your foggy memory or poll your friends and colleagues to find who was right; you’d get your Google on and you’d look at the actual case. (And you’d find out that you were right; it was Palsgraf.)

My point is this: it is your natural tendency as a lawyer (or lawyer-to-be) to look up things and find the answer, rather than just relying on half-remembered canards. It should be the same with your writing.

I spend much of my time writing these days; besides entertaining you fine people here, I’m currently writing a book on the riskiest thing you can do in the workplace with your clothes on — firing employees. Several times a day — every day — I turn to the dictionary (the New Oxford American Dictionary, available for free on any Mac by hitting “Command” and the space bar), Garner’s Modern American Usage, the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), or Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers. I’m fairly on top of my English grammar and usage, but I still check the authorities because I want to get it right. And because I care.

Just like you check the authorities when you’re faced with substantive-law questions. So why not do it for your writing? It’s important to get it right, instead of just guessing or half-remembering or looking at what your colleagues do. It’s important to get it right because you’re a lawyer (or will be), and words are your tools, and you need to show people that you know how to use them.

And that you care.


Disclosure: The Amazon links contained in this post are affiliate links.

Earlier: A Random Friday Poll: One Space or Two Between Sentences?

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at js@shepherdlawgroup.com.

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