We regularly work on articles with our law firm clients, often having to take dry legal subjects from lawyers and turn them into interesting, engaging copy that explains complex matters in simple terms for those without a law degree.

It is tricky sometimes to understand what must stay and what we can edit, because typically the trade magazines we agree articles with, will want a topic covered in 500-700 words, about a page. And if you know lawyers, why use 700 words when 1500 will do?

But amongst all the words, there are spaces and for some reason, even these can cause us an issue. Law firms are all about the detail and precedents going back decades, so once a tradition is ingrained, it’s difficult to shift, which is why they insert double and even triple spaces in their work.

From the age of the typewriter

The double space after a full stop is common in legal text and is said to have developed in the age of the mechanical typewriter. Younger readers should Google the term or ask an older relative what a typewriter is – prepare to be amazed.

American Christopher Latham Sholes is credited with the invention of the typewriter, which he patented on 23rd June 1868. He sold the production rights to gun manufacturer E. Remington & Sons who in 1878 launched the first typewriter to offer upper and lowercase letters.

The technology was seized upon, but the speed at which people could type proved too much for the earliest machines and the keys would regularly jam. To overcome this, Sholes moved the most commonly used letters (A, E & T) to slow typists down and the QWERTY keyboard was born.

However, each character required the same amount of horizontal space, including narrow letters (like lowercase i), which created an uneven distribution that made it hard to tell when a space indicated a new sentence or was just the extra space of a narrow character.

Many type historians argue the practice pre-dates the typewriter by hundreds of years, but let’s go with the romantic notion of the typewriter changing the use of spaces, in much the same way it changed the world of print entirely.

Months to change a habit

The problem of jamming keys requiring a QWERTY keyboard disappeared first with the electric rotating typeball typewriter introduced by IBM in 1961. But by then, millions of people had become used to the layout taught in secretarial colleges or learned at home or in the office.

Switching keyboard layouts has been tried many times, but a habit like QWERTY is hard to break. In fact it’s actually far harder than you think, as evidenced in a 2009 study by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher, who found 66-days was the average time taken to change a habit.

The traditional keyboard layout is so ingrained in the human psyche that every new gadget with a keyboard uses the layout, despite there being no earthly reason for it other than habit.

And that’s where we started, with the habit of lawyers, paralegals and legal secretaries, adding a double space after full stops, a practice still much in evidence today, despite the use of computers and laser printers.

But for how much longer one wonders, following the announcement from Microsoft that Word will now start marking double spaces between sentences as an error.

The underline of concern

Once they roll out the change, people will still be able to opt out of it, much as they can do now with other common spelling and grammar recommendations, accepting, ignoring or disabling the suggestion altogether to remove the offending underline of concern.

It is rare for the legal profession to lag behind, but given the tradition of wigs on barristers to preserve their anonymity in the age of self-promotion on social media, perhaps it’s time the sector caught up and accepted that a single space is sufficient after a full stop.

Perhaps the next consideration for the presentation of legal text, will be the practice of ignoring left justified (ragged right margin) copy and favour of fully-justified text, which without hyphenation can present hideously large spaces between words. But more of that next time.