Saturday, February 27, 2021

Space for disagreement

There are some things that just won’t go away, like fads and obsessions. Aside from political nuttiness, one of the ones that I’ve never understood is how enraged people get over probably the single least important issue facing humanity: Whether people who write in English should use one space or two after a fullstop (period) at the end of a sentence. It wouldn’t surprise me to read one day that a terrorist attack was committed because someone used/didn’t use two spaces after a fullstop.

I was reminded of all this the other day when my real-life (and very long term) friend Linda posted a link to a 2018 piece from The Atlantic, “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period”. Despite how provocative/definitive the titles sounds (depending on which side of the two spaces one is on), the subtitle accurately conveys the details: “A new study proves that half of people are correct. The other is also correct.”

The gist of the argument is that a study of 60 university student subjects showed that two spaces after a fullstop increased reading speed by 3%, or, as the article puts it, ‘an average of nine additional words per minute above their performance ‘under the one-space conditions’.” That’s not exactly an enormous performance enhancement, certainly not enough to go to war over—especially when there’s no evidence of any improvement in comprehension.

My friend later allowed, “I posted this specifically for your eyes and hoped you would comment. You did not disappoint. Thank you.” Here’s an edited version of what I said in reply to her post:
The most vicious [online] verbal attacks I ever received came when I—correctly—pointed out that modern word processing software automatically stripped out double spaces because they use their own spacing methods, including proportional spacing throughout, but not double spaces as such (though it’s usually possible to force it). I also pointed out—correctly—that professional typesetting required that double spaces by stripped out… My saying that made some people in the discussion absolutely apoplectic, unleashing spittle-flecked rage, and quite possibly leading to destroyed keyboards from their fury-typing.

I repeatedly said, “do whatever you want”, but it did nothing to lower their blood pressure or stop their insults and swearing, so I’m afraid I lost it and retaliated: “Go ahead and use two spaces if you want to,” I said. “Whoever prepares your document for professional publication will just charge you to strip them all out.” It was a bit churlish (or maybe just mischievous) to say that to folks in the grip of irrational rage, but it was also true.

The main thing I kept thinking, though, was that with all the real and very important issues in the world, and probably in their own lives, THAT was the issue they chose to lose their mind over?! Personally, I want double spaces between me and anyone like that.
All of that was something that really did happen to me, and more than once. I very vaguely referenced the first such incident in a January 2011 post, “Two spaces or not two spaces”. In it, I gave a sort of “headline version” of what happened when I followed a link shared in a comment to a post two days earlier, “5 things to stop typing”. That particular exchange with me was mild compared to others I’d have later, but the ferocity with which the two-spacers pushed their argument shocked me.

I wrote my response post a day before I published it, but I waited an extra day because I was so rattled by that ferocity. As I said in a footnote to my post, “I’m truly not interested in a fight about something so stupid.” I was worried that if I posted about it the same aggressive fighters would come here and further their crusade. For that same reason, I made my post much more oblique and didn’t quote or even mention any specific comments. That wasn’t the last time I pulled my punches over something I wanted to blog about, but it was certainly among the most memorable for me.

There’s an easy way to avoid all that, of course: Stay away from stupid Internet arguments. It took me some time to get to that point, and along the way a Facebook “friend” unfriended me, I unfriended one of mine, and a young NZ leftist got so incensed that I’d dare vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 that she ordered me to “Go back where you came from. New Zealand is not your home.” Then she blocked me, which was a real time-saver for me, sparing me from having to do that to her.

What I’ve learned from that isn’t just to “Stay away from stupid Internet arguments”, it’s also that ALL Internet arguments are stupid. By definition. Nowadays I just don’t engage. If I see comment I think is especially awful (usually on the public page of a news or political organisation), I’ll just block that person so I’ll never see their idiocy again. I’ve been known to hide Facebook posts from my own FB “friends” when I see that the comments are devolving into a stupid Internet argument. This detachment has served me very well.

But of all the stupid Internet arguments out there, among the mostest stupidest are the typed death matches over how many spaces ”must” follow a fullstop/period. At least I learned to put some space between me and that idiocy. Maybe even two spaces.


Roger Owen Green said...

In general, social media arguments are stupid.
When the topic is inconsequential... (sighs, exhaustedly)

Arthur Schenck said...

Exactly! It was a lesson it took me faaaaar to long to learn, sadly.