To: Dan Zak, reporter, The Washington Post
Re: My sanity
I am taking this opportunity to respond to your recent message, which you delivered via social media for all to see. You noted disapprovingly that in a previous message I had put two spaces after a period. When I acknowledged I had, and implied that I would continue to do so, you wrote this:
“Are you out of your [expletive] mind?”
I forgive you the intemperate language. You are a young and headstrong man, susceptible to frenzies of testosterone hostility. Plus, the question you ask is a valid one. Before I address it, though, I must ask: Would you express such contempt to an abuser of heroin or an alcoholic? Because that is what we are dealing with here, Dan — an addiction, and one over which I am powerless. This is way beyond the reach of 12-Step. There is no Higher Power to importune. God must have a triviality threshold, and I doubt this tiptoes over it.
It is not trivial, to me. I leave ruin in my wake. Just as an alcoholic hurts those around him, I, too, have victims. I only recently discovered this: The generously talented Washington Post copy editors, whose skill set goes beyond uber-literacy to eclectic knowledge of the arts, sports, history and science — these under-appreciated, overworked, oppressed professionals have had to, every week, manually, tediously, search out and kill all my extra spaces. I know shame.
As you probably are aware, the period-space-space reflex is an atavism, a relic from the era of the manual typewriter, when all letters (“m” and “i” alike) took up an equal amount of horizontal space, meaning there was a lot of erratically dispersed white space in lines of type. Accordingly, an extra space after a sentence helped maintain clarity. Now that letters take up proportional space, this is no longer necessary.
(Manual typewriters are responsible for other dreadful things, including the odious but enduring QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to separate frequently used letters so as to minimize the “jamming” of keys, but which makes no sense at all today. It places the ubiquitous “a” beneath our weakest and most klutzy finger — the left pinkie — while reserving the prime, easy-access real estate — under the mighty right pointer — to the negligible “j.” Even designers of linotypes, an equally antique technology, knew better than that, clustering the most frequently used letters on the keyboard. This is why old newspapers occasionally had stray lines of type reading “etoain shrdlu.” Ninety-seven percent of all readers, including you, Dan, have no idea what I am talking about, but the other 3 percent are making little gasping sucky noises of nostalgic delight, beside their soaking dentures.)
But I digress. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. My typing teacher happened to be my mother, who actually happened also to be a professional typing teacher; so, as you can imagine, this was a lesson well-learned and hard-wired into that part of the brain intimidated by feared teachers AND dead mothers. I continued typing on manual typewriters well into my 20s. For me, “period-space-space” is a reflex no more resistible or un-learnable than the reflex that happens to you when you stick two fingers down your throat, or are subjected to my space-happy writing.
On behalf of my sainted mother, I apologize for the discomfort you must feel at reading this column, inasmuch as the copy editors have graciously allowed my two spaces to remain, this one time. Just for you.
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