Communication in the digital age has plenty of strange trappings. Periods can seem aggressive; complete, punctuated sentences can read as uptight. And then there’s the strange space that’s seemed to pop up, more and more, between the last word of a sentence and its end mark.
You probably know someone who texts, chats, or tweets this way. Maybe you do it! As well as being a fully harmless phenomenon (a rarity on the internet), it’s a habit that’s easy to fall into when the people around you are doing it. But why put a space in the first place?
The first and most obvious explanation is … French. Yes, the whole language. In French, exclamation points, question marks, colons, and semi-colons (all forms of “high” punctuation) should always have a space preceding them. For example, if you wanted to text your friend about how much you hate being online, you’d say Je déteste être en ligne ! (In the typewriter era, these spaces were thin and non-breaking; now, they often take the form of standard spaces.)
When French speakers type in English, it can be difficult to break this habit. Cailey Rizzo, 26, who is fluent in both French and English, finds herself slipping into the practice naturally, especially when her iPhone is set to the French keyboard. “When I’m in French brain things are very very different,” she said. “Like even when I’m talking to a French person but in English, I think I add the space … I must just have some sort of muscle memory in the double space tap that’s linked to French.”
Amanda, 25, speaks French and has lots of French-speaking friends, but doesn’t often text in French. Still, she finds herself leaving spaces before exclamation points and question marks. “But I’m not sure if it has to do with speaking French or not,” she reasoned. Instead, she thinks she’s probably subconsciously mimicking her friends’ behavior.
Zelda, 30, is also a French speaker who tends to leave spaces before exclamation points and question marks when texting in English. She chalks it up partially to having lived in France, but it’s also just force of habit. “My thumb automatically hits a space after everything and it seems a waste of effort to go back and delete it,” she said.
‘I get irked when things look crowded even if it’s grammatically correct.’
Of course, there are non-French speakers who have also chosen to use the space. There are even people who — gasp — put a space before “low” punctuation like periods and commas. While some of this comes across as sloppy Francophilia, there are people who opt for the space as a form of sentence cushioning, a way to decrease the (self-perceived) force behind their statements. In essence, they’re taking the French approach based on intuition alone.
“It’s purely my subconscious and obsession w[ith] proportions and negative space,” Rachel, 30, explained. “I get irked when things look crowded even if it’s grammatically correct. So I can’t help but take liberties … it needs room to breathe!”
I do sometimes ! I use it to punctuate my punctuation
— Alex Sujong Laughlin (@alexlaughs) March 5, 2019
In a 2015 New York Times piece, Jessica Bennett expresses a similar sentiment:
So instead of responding to a text with “Cant wait!!” I’ll insert a space or two before the mark — “Cant wait !!” – for that extra little pause. Sometimes I’ll make the exclamation point a parenthetical, as a kind of after thought (“Can’t wait (!)”). A friend inserts an ellipses — “Can’t wait … !!” — so, as she puts it, “it’s less intense.”
And then there’s the device. Even those with no background in French nor any language-cushioning impulses may find themselves using the space from time to time. On iMessage, for example, selecting a word using predictive text automatically places a space after it. In our newsroom’s experience, sometimes the space goes away when you add punctuation and sometimes it does not — meaning that we ran the risk of being an unwitting space user. (This is regardless of whether the “smart punctuation” setting was enabled.)
Mignon Fogarty, who founded the website Quick and Dirty Tips, discovered as much when she surveyed readers about the space-before-punctuation uptick in 2011. A huge number of people reported that they’d noticed their devices automatically adding a space after using predictive text. To fix the issue, she reasoned, “you have to backspace before typing the period, question mark, or exclamation point. So if you’re not paying attention, or you’re simply lazy, it’s easy to leave that space in.”
this guy i went on a date with puts a space before question marks, exclamation points, and sometimes commas , like this ! Is that a good enough excuse to not go on a second date ?
— aliciabeige (@aliciabeige) July 31, 2018
With all this in mind, you have a few tools to detect why that new person you’ve been texting won’t stop leaving spaces before commas. If they’re not actually observing French grammatical norms — remember, the comma is low punctuation — they might be attempting to “soften” their phrasing. Or perhaps they exclusively type using predictive text. Or, less flatteringly, they are trying to imbue their messages with a European affect because they think it will make them sound cultured.
But even in the course of writing this story, I found myself more and more compelled to just leave a little space every now and then. Last week, I caught myself doing it in an Instagram caption. I’m not sure why, exactly; it just felt more laid-back, more elegant, more … French? Oh god.