In what is arguably one of the most controversial studies of the year, researchers at Skidmore College — clearly triggered by a change in the American Psychological Association (APA) stylebook — sought to quantify the benefits of two spaces after a period of time at the end. of a sentence. After an eye-tracking experiment with 60 Skidmore students, Rebecca L. Johnson, Becky Bui, and Lindsay L. Schmitt found that two spaces at the end of a period slightly improved word processing while reading. The study was touted by some press outlets as justifying the superiority of two spacers.
For anyone who has learned their keyboard skills on a typewriter rather than a computer — and for the many who have developed their keyboard muscle memory using software packages like Mavis Beacon to learn to type — the double space after the period is a deep-seated truth. While modern style, based on the misconception that computer typography renders such double spaces superfluous and Paleolithic, has demanded the abolition of the second tap of the space bar after a punctuation point, many have openly opposed this heresy, believing that the extra space is a courtesy to the reader and improves the readability of the text.
Previous cognitive scientific research has been divided on the issue. Some research has suggested that a shorter distance between the beginning of a new sentence may allow a reader to capture more characters in their parafoveal vision – the area of the just outside the focus area, or fovea – and thus process the information sooner. (although experimental evidence of this was not very strong). Other previous research has found that an extra space prevents lateral interference in processing text, making it easier for the reader to identify the word in focus. But no previous research found by Johnson, Bui, and Schmitt has actually measured reader performance with any typographic scheme.
So the Skidmore researchers decided to try and quantify the impact of single versus double spacing at the end of the sentence. First, they divided their group of 60 subjects using a keyboard task – the subjects typed text dictated to them into a computer and were sorted into “one-spacers” (39 regularly place a single space between sentences) and “two-spacers.” (21 hit that space bar twice consistently after a point). Each student subject used only one space after each comma.
After identifying the subjects’ inclinations, the researchers gave them 21 paragraphs to read (including a practice paragraph) on a computer screen and tracked their eye movements while reading using an Eyelink 1000 video-based eye tracking system. “Chin and forehead rests were used to minimize the reader’s head movements,” the Skidmore researchers wrote in their paper. “Although the reading was binocular, eye movements were only recorded from the participant’s right eye.”
Paragraphs used four different sets of typographic arrangements, with five of the experimental paragraphs using each:
(1) one space after periods and commas;
(2) one space after periods, two spaces after commas;
(3) two spaces after periods, one space after commas; and
(4) two spaces after periods and commas.
Each paragraph was between 71 and 166 words long and was “presented in 14-point Courier New font,” the researchers noted.
And that’s where some of the additional controversy over this study begins. Courier New is a fixed-width font that resembles typed text and is rarely used for documents. Even the APA suggests using 12-point Times Roman, a proportional-width font. Fixed-width fonts make a double space more pronounced.
After making sure that readers did indeed understand what they were reading, the researchers evaluated reading speed for each of the paragraph types presented in words per minute. The “one-spacers,” as a group, were slower readers across the board (at about 10 words per minute), and they showed statistically insignificant variation in all four spacing practices. And “two spacers” saw a three percent faster reading speed for paragraphs in their own preferred spacing scheme.
As the researchers concluded:
Punctuation distance had no effect on the likelihood of returning to the punctuation area after exiting the punctuation area, did not affect comprehension, and only increased overall reading speed for participants already typing according to this two-space convention (which increases only three percent). of the overall reading speed). So, while period spacing affects our processing of text, we should probably discuss passionately about things that are more important.
The stylists at Ars will continue to maintain the oppressive standard of one space-after-period, despite what science has to say about it.