Low-Flying “Ls”

From deep in my soul, I apologize for writing this Tip. So many of you have asked me about this, however, it begs for comment, and I have a weakness for the inane. But this is the lamest, least important writing Tip I have ever written, or will ever write. It’s not even a “writing” Tip; it’s a “typing” Tip.

Our story begins in a classroom on the second floor of a terracotta-tiled, stucco-walled, Spanish Colonial, open-air high school, with coconut palms in the courtyard, in the middle of what is now downtown Ft. Lauderdale. My parents thought I should learn how to type, so I was in summer school with 20 other soon-to-be sophomores. Before the summer was over, I could bang out 17 words a minute with no more than sex or seven mistakes. And I learned that after every period, you hit the space bar twice.

Our typewriters came with “fixed-pitch” Courier font – an “i” took up the same horizontal space as an “m” – which made sense for those who engineered typewriters: shift the carriage the same distance with each keystroke. I didn’t know this then, nor would I have cared, but even typesetters at book and magazine publishers had long squeezed two lead slugs into the tray after a period. Typists merely mimicked traditional typesetting by hitting the space bar twice.

But about the time I learned to do that, typesetters in publishing were cutting back to a single space between sentences. They called it “French spacing.” It looked better. (Remember the French can’t serve raspberry sorbet without shaping it into a large, frozen dahlia.) Yet many years after that typing class, I typed the manuscript for my first book on a plastic, manual, portable Olivetti with a ribbon striped red and black, and I still left two spaces after each Courier period. Everybody did.

Although IBM in 1941 gave us the first “proportional-pitch” electric typewriter, which made a page look like it was printed rather than typed, not until the early 1970s did we start shifting to proportional-pitch fonts, first on a “Daisy Wheel” and, by the end of the 1980s, on the fly. With publishers dropping the second space and proportional-pitch fonts smoothing the blocky appearance of Courier, most of us began to space but once after a period.

Debate continues (“rages” would be hyperbolic) over whether one space or two is more readable, but typographers agree that a single space between sentences makes the sentences work better visually.

If anyone cares what I think about spacing between sentences, I would use one and keep my sentences looking like they connect rather than float like little word archipelagos. The hardest part will be trying to convince your brain, a creature of habit, to send a different signal to your thumbs.

While we’re in Ft. Lauderdale, I need to resolve something that has bothered me ever since that summer I learned how to type.

Long before lawsuits over the Stanford “Indians” and the Washington “Redskins,” my high school had a mascot in a white sheet we called the “Spirit” of Ft. Lauderdale High. Our nickname was not a race, or an animal, or even an act of god. We were a winged letter of the alphabet. Not much to offend. But imagine the stadium on Friday night, lights bright, grass green and chalk-striped, as the team storms onto the field and the announcer screams into the microphone that heeeeeere come – quick, get the women and children into the root cellar – “the Flying Ls!” Upon graduating and entering the real world, what we believed in so fervently back then, later made little sense. This has sent many of us 800 at-one-time Ft. Lauderdale High School seniors to the couch, confusing our therapists: “I’m a Flying L!”

Thank you; I feel much better.

Save yourself some time; at the end of every sentence, hit the space bar once. And I’ll be back next time with a real “writing” Tip.