All Hail the Beautiful ( ) Space

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The most powerful state of emptiness in the written word is the humble space. Let us pause and honor it for a     moment, as this particular moment provides us with yet another reminder of why we need the space so.

You've surely seen the tweets, and heard the news. Margaret Thatcher, may she rest in peace, has died, leading to the popularization of the hashtag #nowthatchersdead. Well, of course this is confusing (even as much of the Internet jumps to criticize the dumb-dumbs who assumed this refers to Cher, not Margaret). The space is very important! On Twitter, @LizBuckley wrote, "#nowthatchersdead is a very confusing hashtag for Cher fans." (Clearly!) @RyanJohnNelson added supportively, "The #nowthatchersdead hashtag is terribly worrying and misleading for Cher fans ... (don't worry, Cher can never die, her parts are too new)." What a relief (for Cher fans), but confusion spins on, and one might ask if perhaps this hashtag discussion detracts from the death of an important historical figure, or if the whole "ha-ha-ha people are dumb on the Internet!" gag has gotten a wee bit tired.

But let's talk progress, instead: If the hashtag format does not allow for spaces (or other punctuation), how can we prevent such misunderstandings from happening in the future? Well, one could use upper and lowercase letters (#NowThatchersDead), as suggested by some wise readers instead of expecting everyone to rely on context. Or the entire hashtag might be rephrased, or, well, maybe a "death hashtag," especially one phrased rather glibly like that, isn't really ideal at all? I don't know, just throwing some ideas out.

Recommended Reading

Hashtags aren't the only case where such mishaps might occur, of course. Space mishaps can occur in any number of places, when words, and therefore meanings, are squished together and allow for possibly grave misinterpretation. Take the case Romenesko shared this weekend, of what happened at The Daily Star. In an online headline a key space was left out, turning "Experts say pen is mighty no longer" to something far more phallic—and simultaneously, perhaps, far more SEO friendly. This was apparently a web-only glitch involving the print formatting not translating to the online page, and of course, it's far more levity-filled than any #hashtagdeath stories. Everybody loves a copy-editing mistake, particularly one that gets a little graphic.

As for the space, the perfect little space, in September of last year, for National Punctuation Day, I asked writers and word-aficionados what their favorite marks were. One of them, Oxford English Dictionary's Jesse Sheidlower, voted for that empty spot left between words to allow us to read, to help us understand. He explained, "People tend to argue for the expressiveness of the semicolon, or the esoteric old-fashionedness of the diaeresis. But these are all seasonings. The meat of it is the space, and if you've ever tried to read manuscripts from the era before the space was regularly used, you'll know just how important it is. It's what gives us words instead of a big lump."

While these hashtag lumps may seem distinctly digital, they actually harken back to ancient writing. Back in classical times, Latin was written with centered dots (or "interpuncts") to separate words, for example, DONA·EIS·REQVIEM. Imagine, it would be something like reading HTML all day long. But it gets worse! Ancient Greeks didn't use interpuncts at all, and around AD 200, scriptio continua—or running words together without any separators—became the norm in Latin, too. Though by around 600 to 800 AD spaces were being added between words, and now in English the practice is of course standard, scriptio continua still exists "in Thai, other Southeast Asian abugidas, and in languages that use Chinese characters (Chinese and Japanese) though with sentence breaks." 

Here's a bit of Latin text in scriptio continua, taken from Cicero's De finibus bonorum et malorum, via Princeton.


Which in modern punctuation is:

Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit… or, ‘Nobody likes pain for its own sake, or looks for it and wants to have it, just because it is pain…’

When you start to imagine the pain of writing life without the space, don't you feel rather lucky? 

One little space makes a big difference. All the little spaces make even more of one. So while you do the things you do today, and surely at least one of those things will involve a space or two, think about how valuable that blank spot is to the rest of your life, and all of human understanding. Whether you prefer one or two spaces between sentences—and that's another debate that highlights how dramatically people feel about the space—you surely want at least something to punctuate the beginnings and endings of your words and phrases. Or—yousurelywantatleastsomethingtopunctuatethebeginningsandendingsofyourwordsandphrases. Right? 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.