Episode 257: January 6, 2011
Today’s article is a little different from what I normally do. If you’re a new listener, welcome. I usually write about things like serial commas and “who” versus “whom,” but today we’re going to investigate a writing mystery. I've received a couple of messages now from people wanting to know why they’re suddenly seeing spaces between the end of a word and punctuation. I’m not talking about how many spaces to put after a period- I covered that back in episode 181- I’m talking about people putting a space between the end of a sentence and the final period, exclamation point, or question mark. I hadn't seen it myself, and although I know it’s wrong, I didn’t know why people had started doing it. It was a mystery! So I posted the question on the Grammar Girl Facebook page and got some interesting answers.
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Mimicking French Punctuation Spacing
The first explanation offered by many readers is that a space is required before some punctuation marks in French. At the end of a sentence, French writers put a space before finishing with a question mark or an exclamation point. According to the About.com page on French punctuation, French requires a space before any two-part punctuation mark, so you’d also need a space before a semicolon, a colon, and the French equivalent of quotation marks (1). Also to my surprise, I learned that the French don’t use quotation marks, they use something called guillemets that look like double greater-than and less-than signs (« »).
The French connection makes some sense. For example, Amy commented that she sees the extra spaces most often with exclamation points and question marks, and Sadie said she sees the extra spaces in e-mail messages from her French friends. Lisa, who was one of the people who originally asked about this phenomenon said she had first seen it in comments from her French and French Canadian friends.
So, it seems somewhat plausible that the French spacing rule is spreading among English writers. Maybe people see it in English writing from French speakers and get confused about what is right or adopt the style intentionally to affect a European air. I’ve seen stranger things.
But it bothered me that this seemed to be such a new error. Sure, it could be that more French people are writing in places English writers would see it. Obviously, the Internet would easily make those kinds of interactions more likely. It’s also possible it’s not really a new error and it’s just a coincidence that people have suddenly started to notice it or suddenly started writing to me about it. But I wondered if something else was going on.
A second thread among the comments made me think that technology is the main culprit.
Shauna, Suzanne, Tanya, Jennifer, and JoAnn have all commonly seen people put spaces before a period when they’re formatting hyperlinks in a sentence to keep the punctuation from being included in the link or to make sure the program makes the link clickable. Some word processing or e-mail programs do mess up a link when you have punctuation at the end, although most have evolved to deal with this because it’s such a common situation. A comment from Crystal jumped out at me though: She said the corporate style guide required a space between the end of a Web address and the final punctuation at her previous job. Yuck!
Beth described a Facebook-specific problem. You can make a person’s name link to his or her page if you put an @ symbol before the name, but it will only work if you leave a space after the name; and that creates the extra-space problem if the name is at the end of a sentence.
Software bugs may also contribute to the spread of the extra space. Kate said that programs such as HTML editors can cause weird spacing issues, which reminded me that I sometimes have to wrangle the WYSIWYG editor we use to create the Grammar Girl e-mail newsletter because spaces we don’t see in the system sometimes mysteriously appear in the final e-mail. We send out test e-mails to ourselves before sending the final e-mail to catch these kinds of problems.
Phyllis added that heavily edited Word documents can insert spaces when you have track changes on. I’ve seen that too and I’ve always wondered whether it’s a software error or it’s just hard to notice extra spaces when the documents look so messy with everyone’s changes.
But I think the biggest contributor to the growth in the extra space is probably the algorithms that complete words for you on the iPhone or in voice-to-text software. More people than I can mention pointed out that if you start typing a word, and then choose the full word from the iPhone’s list of possibilities, it automatically inserts a space after that word. If you’re at the end of a sentence, you have to backspace before typing the period, question mark, or exclamation point. So if you’re not paying attention, or you’re simply lazy, it’s easy to leave that space in.
And that brings us to laziness and ignorance, which many people speculated are the root causes; and they may be part of the problem, but there still have to be reasons that people start making certain kinds of errors. In the case of the extra space, I’m now willing to bet that it’s a little bit of influence from foreign languages and a lot of influence from technology.