When Did You Last Use a Typewriter?

Typewriter from The Shining

An article from Farhad Manjoo, formerly of Slate and soon to be formerly of the Wall Street Journal, is making the rounds on the Internet. His point is simple:

Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

This is old news, and not just because the article appears to have been published three years ago. (See the update at the bottom of the page.)

It’s old news because I remember reading this back in 1997 or so, when I was in college and working at UCSB Extension on the tech support team.1 On a slow day, I skimmed through a book we had on the shelf, The Mac is Not a Typewriter. It didn’t necessarily change my life, but it had many lessons on how to compose a manuscript on a Mac, or any computer, that have stuck with me. One of the cardinal lessons was to only use a single space after a period, especially if you were using a proportional-width font. Although I don’t have a copy of the book, but if memory serves, it was because you needed two spaces on a typewriter to distinguish an abbreviation and a sentence.

For example:

New York City has many churches. St. Patrick's Cathedral is perhaps the best known.

Can you tell the difference between the end of the sentence “New York City has many churches” and the abbreviation for “Saint?” That’s why you needed to use two spaces after a period on a typewriter. Such is not the case on a computer.

There were a few other lessons that I recall from the Mac is Not a Typewriter:

  • Watch for widows and orphans.
  • Use smart quotes instead of straight ones.
  • The differences between a hyphen, an en-dash, and a em-dash.
  • Why underline when you can easily italicize?

The book appears to have been last updated in 2003. While that might seem like an eternity, a great deal of those lessons are still relevant today.

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  1. Does anyone know when technology folks started working in “teams” instead of “groups”? That seems to be a fairly recent thing. 

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