Skirmish at Sentence Break

I started on this post a while ago, intending to write a prescriptivist tirade about the integrity of the infinitive forms of verbs and how violation of this integrity is a serious crime. After doing a bit of research and reflecting more about the split infinitive and its properties that might irritate me, I determined that split infinitives, per se, are not the source of my irritation. Indeed, there are contexts in which the best course of action is to split an infinitive. Before I go any further, I should say that I realize, now, that none of the language usages that irritate me are violations of some natural law of grammar, syntax, usage or style. Nevertheless, they irritate me still, but prescriptivists’ claims about these subjects are even more irritating than the practices.

A post by novelist Lucy Ferriss on the blog, Lingua Franca, which is maintained on the web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled, “To Space or Not to Space” impelled me to laugh aloud at the entire situation. Note that this post is about whether to single- or double-space before starting a new sentence after a period/full-stop. In this post, Ms. Ferriss cites two other blog posts (on other blogs), one by NY Times technology blogger, Farhad Manjoo (blogging for Slate at the time, titled “Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever, Add Two Spaces After a Period”) and another by Robb Forman Dew on her web site. Apparently, this topic is incendiary. Manjoo, the technology blogger, takes the biblical position, that is, he cites the convention to insert one space after a period, which convention was agreed by a committee under the auspices of a Higher Authority, the typesetter’s guild, following centuries of rampant individualism by the members of said guild wreaked havoc on the publishing and printing industries (or so I’m told). Dew and Ferriss observe that those among us who have used a typewriter, viz., those over 40 years of age, learned to insert two spaces when typewritten manuscripts were in monospace type because sentence breaks were easier for typesetters to spot. According to Manjoo (and others cited by Ferriss), the introduction of variable-space fonts obviated any need for a second space after the period by rendering the single-spaced break between sentences visible (whereas, I suppose, it was invisible prior to this technological advance). Moreover for Manjoo, the single-space break is “aesthetically more pleasing.”

One result of my investigation, however non-scholarly it has been, is that I’ve discovered (yes, yes, many others discovered it before I did) a war between prescriptivist and evolutionist grammarians, stylists and writers that has raged for centuries. As an observer with a scientific perspective might expect, the evolutionists win all of the battles in this battle-without-end. Despite their losses and continuing retreat, the prescriptivists will never lose the war, at least by capitulation; they will continue to wage guerilla warfare at the fringes as they retreat still further into the wilderness. The battle of spacing is at one of those fringes and is not a battle, but a skirmish, fierce though the participants may be.

Another result is that I’ve identified most of the sources of my irritation, but I know only that some of them irritate me because some authority figure told me in my youth they should (the prime example of this is the split infinitive). I have yet to determine why other practices, such as passive voice, are irritants.

The final result, and probably most important and useful, is that I’m not irritated (or less so as the case may be) by so-called grammar, usage, style or punctuation errors. I am still irritated by prose, fiction or poetry that impedes the flow of ideas and my access to them. The battles between writing that impels versus impedes the reader’s grasp of the matter at hand are the major battles. The writer fights these battles with him or her self every day he or she writes. And, I will continue to double-space at sentence breaks without compunction, unless I’m preparing a manuscript for publication.


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Filed under Grammar, Language, Writing

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