November 18, 2009

Language Tips: formatting-using spaces & irregardless, what do we mean by a few?

Posted in few and a few, irregardless/regardless, spaces at 3:31 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Remember, it’s 2009, kids; get rid of the typewriter mentality!

I am going a little afield today, and, instead of a language tip, I want to talk about some formatting issues.

You know what makes me crazy about having to tell you this? Many of you weren’t born when typewriters were being used! So what is your excuse for having typewriter mentalities?

What do I mean by typewriter mentality? It is this: many of the formatting conventions that people use were developed before word processors and computers became ubiquitous. And many of the formatting conventions came about because typewriters only had monospaced fonts. Monospaced fonts or fixed width fonts are fonts whose letters each occupy the same amount of space. Typewriters could only move an equal space forward, so it made sense that the fonts corresponded. Courier is the classic typewriter font and is a good example of a monospaced font.


Look at the picture, here, which is printed in courier. The ‘a’ is the same size as the ‘e’ and the ‘g’ is the same size as the ‘q’ and so forth. Look at the ‘i’ and the ‘l. ‘ Even they are the same width as the other letters-look at the serifs (those are the horizontal lines at the base of the letters). The width of those serifs is the same width as the ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c’ or any other monospaced letters.

One of the problems with all of the letters being the same size is that the words are harder to read. So a convention was established to put two spaces after a period (full stop) or other sentence-ending punctuation. The extra space made it easier to tell when a new sentence began.

Now, we use proportional fonts. With proportional fonts, each letter only takes up as much space as it needs. The letter ‘I’ takes up less space than the letter ‘m’ since it’s a narrow letter and doesn’t need as much horizontal space as the ‘m.’ Proportional fonts are used because they are much easier to read than monospaced fonts. They are so easy to read, that you only need to use one space after a period (full stop). Do you see where I am going with this?

STOP inserting TWO SPACES after a period!

Why, you might ask, am I getting myself so worked up about this now? Well, I’ve brought it up before, but it clearly did not stick. AND NOW IT MATTERS! We are being asked to go from 25 page grant proposals to 6 or 12 page grant proposals and from 3 page response to reviewers to 1 page! We need all of the space we can eke out. In a typical 25 page proposal, changing from two spaces after a period to one space after a period will save you more than a page! That is huge when you only have 6 or 12 pages to work with.

I know you are used to the two spaces and may forget to change. But, you can actually set up Word to check this for you.

In Word 2003 on the PC, go into ‘options,’ ‘grammar and spelling,’ and in ‘settings,’ select ‘spaces between sentences,’ and select ‘1.’

In Word 2007 on the PC, go into the button menu, select ‘word options,’ then select ‘proofing,’ and under ‘When correcting spelling and grammar in word,’ select ‘writing style,’ ‘grammar only or grammar and style,’ and ‘settings.’ In settings, under ‘require,’ at ‘spaces between sentences,’ select ‘1.’

In Word 2008 on the Mac,  under preferences in the Word menu, select ‘Spelling and Grammar’. Under ‘Grammar’ select ‘Settings,’ and then at ‘Spaces between sentences,’ select ‘1’

And there you have it. If you forget and leave two spaces after a period, Word will insert one of its green squiggly lines to remind you.

And while I am on a rant about space, let me add this. Some of you, and you know who you are, persist in adding an extra space before and after a slash.

We want to look at the effects of chronic disease and / or acute infection on the lymphatic system.

What is with that? Cut it out. We can’t afford to lose any space. The sentence should be:

We want to look at the effects of chronic disease and/or acute infection on the lymphatic system.

The only time it is legitimate to surround the slash with spaces is when you are quoting poetry.

This Is Just To Say
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox

and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast

Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold

Our formatting lesson is almost over, but let me leave you with one last thought. There is one more relic of the typewriter that we don’t need and should NEVER use anymore, and that is the UNDERLINE. While in the olden days of typewriters, that was the only way to show emphasis (typewriters did not have bold or italics), that’s not true anymore. Italics and bolding are much better and more readable ways to show emphasis. Pretend that you don’t even see the U in your word processor. And never touch it!

Tip 2: Irregardless, what do we mean by a few?

A reader writes:

I have a question: My husband thinks “a few” means “some,” and “few” means “none.” For example, “Those apple trees have few apples” means “Those apple trees have no apples” to my husband. Is this accurate?

Also, can you please clarify whether “irregardless” is a real word, even colloquially? It drives me crazy when I hear it, but I’m not sure if it is in fact, correct.

Let me answer the second question first.

Irregardless is not a word. Some say it is a word since it has been used so much, but its use is not standard. But I don’t buy it: Irregardless is not a word. Do not use it in your conversations nor in your writing. Garner calls the use of irregardless a barbarism and has this to say about it:

Although this widely scorned NONWORD seems unlikely to spread much more than it already has, careful users of language must continually swat it when they encounter it.

Consider it swatted.

Now for your second question:

Your husband is on to something but he is a little bit off the mark. There is no sense in which few equals none. Few implies some. And there is, indeed, a subtle difference between few and a few.

A few means a small number.

Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), “All’s Well That Ends Well”, Act 1 Scene 1

If you want to make a song more hummy, add a few tiddely poms
Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne

Few means an indefinite small number. Few emphasizes how small the number is. Few implies hardly any-but not ‘not any.’

Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity,
Reduce selfishness,
Have few desires.
Lao-tzu (604 BC – 531 BC), The Way of Lao-tzu

Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.
Leo Durocher (1906 – 1991)

Finally, the expression, few in number, is redundant.



  1. Marie Sonnet said,

    Dear Deb, I have rid myself of the habit of 2 spaces between sentences only to read that APA 6 notes a change from APA 5 of a “return to two spaces after the period at the end of the sentence recommended for ease of reading comprehension.” I’m afraid I’m going to have to become bi-spatial. How common is this reversal?

    • dlseltzer said,

      This is the first i have heard about it. Let me kook into this and write it up.

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