Lines in the sand

Some time back I pointed out, in my irenic way, that the replacement of typewriters by electronic word-processing software has made it unnecessary, and even undesirable, to put two spaces after a period. Just today, a gentleman named Stephen, bless his heart, posted this comment on the “Just one space, please” post:

I'm 27 and started typing 18 years ago. I learned on a typewriter, and later on an old Apple IIe in school. I've always put two spaces between sentences, and plan to continue doing so.

It’s a free country, and he is free to keep on doing this without fear of hearing hobnailed boots on the stairs in the middle of the night. And happily, as Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, has pointed out, Microsoft Word and similar programs enable editors to delete those superfluous spaces quickly and simply.

But still, as a writer of a language blog, I marvel at the determination—some might call it stubbornness—with which people are adamant about adhering to practices that are unnecessary and misguided.

“Mrs. Cadwallader told me in the sixth grade that none is always singular, and nothing that you or any other editor or linguist can say will make me think that it’s right to use it as a plural.”

Or “You’ll get me to stop writing is comprised of when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

I suppose that in the vagaries of this transitory life, people develop a sense of stability by insisting on retaining long-held beliefs and practices, even in the face of sweetly reasonable explanations that those practices are obsolete or wrong-headed.

Add to that, of course, that no one much likes receiving instruction from a copy editor.

But the vehemence, equally distributed among things that do matter and things that don’t matter very much at all, continues to strike me as disproportionate, and the resistance to new information as sad. The number of points on which I have been in error over the years has left me much humbler than the arrogant popinjay I was in my twenties. I’m tempted to repeat once more Oliver Cromwell’s plea, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

And also: Irenic, which you noticed in the opening sentence, is the word of the week at Feel free to comment on it there or here, and also look at the gallery of previous words of the week.



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