Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Typography Fascist

Is that the appropriate equivalent of a grammar nazi? Well, we'll go with that, for lack of a better term.
Anyway, a friend of mine recently (i.e., within a month or so) posted a link to this article on his facebook feed: http://www.slate.com/id/2281146/.

For those too lazy to read two articles in one day, the essay's author essentially is arguing for the use of a single space after a period rather than a double space. The reaction to the article that I posted on Facebook was less than kind: "If I'm not going to listen to those elitist "manners" people when they tell me how to hold my fork and knife, or tie my shoes, or get out of a car, then a typographer with an ax to grind isn't going to get me to change my ways. Don't these people have better things to do? Like complain about lax spelling in text messages?"

I would like to apologize for that comment. It was flippant, dismissive, and rude. It's also ill-advised in terms of my research; a part of my study is on the design of text in video games, and thus it would behoove me not to upset any errant typographers who may be insulted by such comments. And finally, it's incredibly hypocritical of me to even imply that typographers are making a big deal over nothing, since my role as an English instructor has brought me to the point where I refuse to allow students to use "that" as a subject, use "quote" as a noun, and, if possible, avoid using the word "similarly" altogether.

So I apologize. I apologize to my friend, I apologize to anyone offended by comment, and I apologize to the article's writer.

I still think he's wrong, though.

Allow me to summarize his argument, and respond to each point in turn:
1) Typographers say it should be one space.
2) It's an unnecessary holdover (skeumorph!) from the typewriter.
3) Two spaces don't signal proper stops so much as eliminate the flow of the writing.
4)Using a single space isn't any more arbitrary than using a double space.

My response:
1) Elitism isn't an argument, it's an excuse. And a bad one at that. Just because the experts act in a certain way doesn't mean you should follow their lead--unless there's a good reason to do so. Personally, I'm in favor of viewing grammar and structure as concepts that are more fluid than they're generally held to be; I think, when there's no clear reason not to, such conventions such bend to common usage. I could, admittedly, be accused of hypocrisy here, since any student attempting a common usage argument in my classroom wouldn't get very far with me. To that charge, I offer two responses: first, I honestly think that most of the grammatical elements I insist on improve on clarity, and thus justify deviation from popular use. And second, writing should always take into account its context; certain rules of grammar should be more rigorously observed because of the purpose of the document. A scholarly essay is different in tone than a personal email, and grammar is one of the many indicators of that fact. If Manjoo is arguing for a single space in all cases, and I don't think there's grounds for such a universal rule.

2) This reason is better, but still not sufficient. If we're going to argue against the use of typewriter conventions, then we should start by fundamentally redesigning the keyboard and the basic presentation form of the computer document. Spacing figures relatively low on that list of priorities.

3)Yes, spaces create pauses; that's the point. The end of a sentence is a logical place to create a pause, and using just a period and capital letter to signal that pause isn't enough for me. To create a mental pause, a visible spatial pause is the most economical option. Personally, I don't find that the double space interrupts flow; that's what the paragraph break is for. Even in Manjoo's article, when I glance at it, it's the space between paragraphs that signal to me that he's starting a new idea, not a double space between sentences. (Not that he uses the double space, but please, work with me here.)

4)I don't even know if this argument needs dismissing--it dismisses itself pretty well. Arguing that the double-space argument might be arbitrary but so is the single-space doesn't really get us much beyond the "I know you are, but what am I?" sort of taunt.

I suppose what really bugs me about this article is that the author states right off right near the beginning that what really irritates him isn't just that others use the double space method, but that they insist that anyone who does otherwise is wrong--his exact stance on the single space. (Granted, he's not as extreme on this issue as some of the others he cites. "Type crimes?") Rather than insist this author should adopt the two-space method, I'm going to conclude with the same conclusion that someone posted to the comments of my friend's Facebook links:
"I don't care how many spaces you put into your own paper as long as you dont tell me how many to put in mine."

Tell it, sister. And since a Facebook post is an informal forum, I'm not even going to make a disparaging comment about the missing apostrophe.

...Oops.


Later Days.

3 comments:

Buzz said...

I said this in my FB comments, but my issue with the double-space arises entirely from my experiences as an editor. Try working with a document with paragraph markers turned on; the double dots any time there are two spaces after a period will drive you insane in very short order.

Lynn said...

i'm not sure if that was meant to be a compliment or an insult....but i deserver some credit for being quoted

Person of Consequence said...

It was absolutely meant as a compliment. And simultaneously a jab at myself, that I can acknowledge it's good advice, but I'm too anal-retentive to take it.
As for proper credit, it's a lack soon mended. Ladies and gentlemen, the word of reason in a grammar of irritability: Lynn.