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The Space Bar – A Bit of Background

Back in the days before computers and desktop publishing, typists created space between words by hitting the space bar on their typewriters once (typically with their thumb). The standard practice of that time said that two spaces were to be used at the end of a sentence. But that was back in the day, for typists who were creating documents on a typewriter. Typewriters were crude instruments for putting text on paper. They only had one typeface (until interchangeable “daisywheel” typewriters came along) and that one typeface was in only one size. Besides that, all the letters, numbers, and symbols were monospaced. That means that every character took the same amount of space, no matter if it were a capital M or a lowercase i.

Those rules and limitations never applied to professional typesetters. Typesetters have always had access to several typefaces in various sizes, and their type was proportionally spaced. Typesetting was a realm far beyond the humble desktop typewriter. The greater control that their tools gave them (especially the proportionately spaced type) made typesetters’ documents look drastically better than anything a typist could do on a typewriter.

But things are different now.

Instead of dumb typewriters, we use something called computers. The great thing about computers is that they let average people do things really well that they couldn’t do at all without a computer. Typesetting is just one example of that. With the average computer, we have access to far more typefaces, in an infinite number of sizes, than any professional typesetter from days gone by. And while there are a few typefaces that are intentionally monospaced to mimic typewriters from the past, it’s safe to say that every font that you’ll ever use is proportionally spaced, as well.

Different Tools Mean Different Rules

Let’s start by dispelling the “two spaces at the end of a sentence” practice. In the world of proportional spacing, it is no longer required. Your computer compensates. Using two spaces will make your text look gappy. Most people today don’t like that look. If you persist in doing it, people will think that your document was created by a secretary from the 1960s.  But you be the judge. The first paragraph below uses one space after periods. The second paragraph uses two. Which do you prefer?

InDesign spacing examples

What about the single space, though? Well, software compensates for that, too. While there is a “standard” amount of space when the space bar is used, that space is adjusted (without any action on the part of the user) to accommodate several different conditions:

  • Spacing between “wide” and “thin” letters (think “s” and “i”) need to be adjusted to make the text more readable. The letter “i” obviously isn’t as wide as the letter “s” but a little more space is required between two of them or they are difficult to read. Similarly, two of the letter “s” require a little less space between them.

Spacing Differences between Ss and Is

  • InDesign proportionally changes spacing to accommodate line endings and margins.
  • If full justification is used, it provides even more proportional changes. You can see from the first two lines in the example below that the pink text, which is justified, has spread out the text slightly. InDesign accomplishes that not by changing the size of the letters, but by adding little bits of white space between the words and/or characters.

Aligned Text Example

There’s More to White Space than the Space Bar
There’s more ways to get white space than hitting the space bar. Near the bottom of the Type menu, you’ll find the option “Insert White Space.” Click it and a plethora of options become available.

InDesign Type - Insert White Space Menu

I’ll give you the technical definition of each but a picture is worth a thousand words, right? The image below illustrate the differences in the white spaces. I’ve included a guide to make the difference more clear.

InDesign Insert White Space Options

That, my friend is the power of inserting spaces.

How can you tell what kind of space has been used? By checking out the hidden characters. The following image is the same as the previous one except that we have toggled “show hidden characters” on (^Alt I or Type > Show/Hide Hidden Characters).

Illustration of InDesign Hidden Character for White Space

The hidden characters are the faint blue dots and dashes indicating the type of white space used. A simple dot represents a space bar space.

What’s it all mean? Here’s the detail, taken directly from Adobe’s help site.

Em Space: Equal in width to the size of the type. In 12‑point type, an em space is 12 points wide.

En Space: One‑half the width of an em space.

Nonbreaking Space: The same flexible width as pressing the spacebar, but it prevents the line from wrapping or being broken at the space character.

Nonbreaking Space (Fixed Width): A fixed width space prevents the line from being broken at the space character, but does not expand or compress in justified text. The fixed width space is identical to the Nonbreaking Space character inserted in InDesign CS2.

Third Space: One‑third the width of an em space.

Quarter Space: One‑fourth the width of an em space.

Sixth Space: One‑sixth the width of an em space.

Flush Space: Adds a variable amount of space to the last line of a fully justified paragraph, useful for justifying text in the last line. (See Change Justification settings.)

Hair Space: One‑twenty‑fourth the width of an em space.

Thin Space: One‑eighth the width of an em space. You may want to use a thin space on either side of an em dash or en dash.

Figure Space: Same width as a number in the typeface. Use a figure space to help align numbers in financial tables.

Punctuation Space: Same width as an exclamation point, period, or colon in the typeface.

Why would you ever use them? You will find wildly differing “rules” about when to use these various spaces – so wildly differing rules that the most important one is that you follow your own style guide consistently. Here are some guidelines we use:

  • Never use regular spaces to align text. Use tabs. Occasionally you can use En or Em spaces.
  • For a line or two you might violate the above rule and use an En or Em space at the beginning of the line to indent the first line of text. Standardize on using tabs, paragraph indents and/or first line paragraph indents, but the occasional Em or En space sometimes simplifies things. Remember – occasional.
  • You might use En or Em space to separate a subhead that appears within the first line of a paragraph (typesetters call it a “running head”). It sets the headline off a bit from the rest of the paragraph.
  • A little space on either side of a slash improves the look of headlines. I typically use thin spaces on both sides of the slash as shown below. The first line has no spaces, the second line uses thin spaces, the third line uses regular spaces.

Using White Space around Slash in InDesign

  • Most rules say there should be no spaces on either side of an em dash. I think that looks really crowded and usually use regular spaces (for run-of-the-mill documents). For fancy documents (e.g., poetry, invitation, expensive coffee table books) or in headlines, I often use a sixth space.

InDesign White Space Around Em DashSpacing is highly subjective. InDesign offers you many options to obtain the look you want. Pick a look you like and stick with it. Adding special spaces into your document takes a bit more time, but used judiciously they can make your document much more readable and attractive.

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