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In written English (mainly online) I often come across sentences ending with a question or an exclamation mark with a space before it. Is it always just an error or a typo? Or there are cases when it is a correct English, for example after closing parentheses or some other punctuation marks?

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It's a common typo by French (because in French, there is a white space before a question/exclamation mark) and Indians (because I have no idea why and would like to know myself). In English, there is traditionally no white space. In online context, it would be especially perilous, because most people don't know about   and/or have no control over the actual HTML source code, and you don't want to constantly end up with question/exclamation marks being printed on the next line. – RegDwigнt Nov 2 '10 at 15:52
As a special case, please do put a space before the punctuation when ending a sentence with a hyperlink or similar so it will be easier to select, and so automatic hyperlink creation won't gobble it. Instead of "Try asking on english.stackexchange.com." (results in a broken link), say "Try asking on english.stackexchange.com ." I do this as a courtesy to others, even if it's breaking the rules a bit. – Joey Adams Jun 24 '11 at 23:38
@Joey Adams: Would that be a hyperspace? – Edwin Ashworth Nov 27 '12 at 22:07
@Reg, in most Indian schools, English grammar is taught from a book that was originally authored by two Englishmen: PC Wren and H Martin. The earlier editions of the book (including the one that I own) has a space before the following punctuation marks are used: question mark, exclamation mark, dash (em dash), colon and semi-colon. Also, one can observe two spaces after a full-stop (or a "period" as the Americans call it). My guess is that such practice is a relic of the typewriter era. The new editions of "Wren & Martin Grammar Book" (as it is known in India) appear not to have such spaces. – user36421 Jan 25 '13 at 10:07
@AnIndianGuy excellent. Very useful information, I always wondered that. Thank you so much for sharing. – RegDwigнt Jan 25 '13 at 10:34
up vote 51 down vote accepted

In English, it is always an error. There should be no space between a sentence and its ending punctuation, whether that's a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. There should also be no space before a colon, semicolon, or comma. The only ending punctuation mark that sometimes needs to be preceded by a space is a dash.

I see this error most often with people who never really learned to type. In handwriting, spacing is more, um, negotiable and subject to interpretation.

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@Atømix, the double space is a typographical convention, of doubtful utility these days. But in any case, it's irrelevant to this question. – Marthaª Nov 2 '10 at 16:25
It's a little bit sweeping to say that it is "always" an error. It's arguable an error IF the writer wanted to adopt the most common convention in English, which is to not put the space. And it's an error if their editor/style guide explicitly instructed them to do so and they are compelled to follow that editor/style guide. But otherwise if a writer actively decides they want to adopt the French convention of putting the space, although unusual, they're presumably free to do so. – Neil Coffey Nov 27 '12 at 21:32
@NeilCoffey, show me a single reputable modern English style guide that allows a space before a period. I don't think you can find one. French usage is totally irrelevant: in English, you don't put a space before a period. Ever. – Marthaª Nov 28 '12 at 16:42
@NeilCoffey, there's no law or compulsion that says you can't use the word "horse" to mean what other people call "coffee". But it would still be an error of English usage to do that. – The Photon Aug 10 '13 at 17:32
@Chuim: strictly speaking, if you end a sentence with an ellipsis, you should include the ending period as well, i.e. you'll have a series of four dots, not three; and the "no space before ending punctuation" rule applies to that fourth dot, not the ellipsis itself. As far as putting spaces before or after ellipses, it's mostly a question of style; I wouldn't include spaces, but I'm sure there are style guides that allow for them. – Marthaª Mar 16 '15 at 19:32

People have mentioned in the comments that, yes, in the past, a small (non-breaking) space was inserted before an ! and a ? These must never start a new line. The space is also a small space, very clearly much more than the space between letters of a word, but much less than a sentence-ending space.

See, for example, this:

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From an 1899 edition of Ralph T. H. Griffith's The Texts of The White Yajurveda. (Link)

This is by no means current practice, as Marthaª's answer explains and I suppose the answer to the question 'is it ever correct ...' is no. But was it ever correct? Yes, very much so.

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The Chicago Manual of Style recommends a nonbreakable space before and after an ellipses when the intention is to trail off a sentence.

13.52 Ellipses with other punctuation. Placement of the other punctuation depends on whether the omission precedes or follows the mark; when the omission precedes it, a nonbreakable space should be used between the ellipsis and the mark of punctuation to prevent the mark from continuing over to the beginning of a new line.

This is a specific instance, and Chicago is one of two accepted style guides for (most) American publishing.

"You stop right there! When I get a hold of you, I'll ... !"

"Do you want to, you know ... ?"

There is so much to love about fudge ... . [I feel the ellipses before a period is the weakest example because it's arguable whether the ellipsis should come before or after the period, if at all.]

A nonbreakable space is still a space.

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Interesting. Spacing around ellipses seems to be quite variable between different style guides, if the answers to the following question (and linked questions) are to be believed: Space before three dots? Apparently Robert Bringhurt advises against using spacing when the ellipsis is followed by another punctuation mark: Spaces for Ellipses – sumelic Jun 23 at 5:07
I believe it to be a typesetting issue and thus highly variable. However, the US is increasingly following Chicago. Certainly one would never be wrong adhering to their guidelines (within the US). – Stu W Jun 23 at 5:14

The best, perhaps only, reason for one space between end of sentence and its punctuation is for the !, following upright fonts resembling too closely the ! itself. Only other occurrence would be typographical error. Readability trumps convention.

Written language convention mutates. Consider Webster. Allow brief, supporting narrative: I'm a journalist and an English teacher who now abides my students using ONE space between manuscript sentences--not the conventional, PROPER, two. I don't expect generations born into texting, IMs, emails, all things digital, to embrace tradition. With discussion and exposure, on-line users might accept an intentional, rare space before the !. Now, I'll go read "tips on writing great answers." No, we don't always read manuals before assembly . . . .

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How in the world can you tell how many spaces they use in their handwriting? – tchrist Nov 27 '12 at 21:20
I use the flexi-space, where a gap contains exactly the number of unit spaces I intend it to (on that day). The idea came to me after reading Alice . – Edwin Ashworth Jan 25 '13 at 11:26
It is not now, nor has it ever been, proper to use two spaces after a sentence in the English language in handwriting or typography (magazines, newspapers, etc). For a brief period it was accepted from typewriter written material because typewriters had an interesting quirk that they had to use a fixed width font so they wouldn't jam. Fixed-width fonts looked awkward without the extra space. Unfortunately, those that learned to type during this era mistakenly thought that was proper English. – ThinkingStiff Jan 30 '13 at 19:13
@ThinkingStiff: Wrong. Please read this article: Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history) – sumelic Jun 23 at 0:39

In many cases, it is essential for readability to put a space before an exclamation mark! Not there but here's an example: lol ! Due to the font, the space is in fact not needed there, but many fonts leave an L looking too much like an ! to be readable.

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You have correct intuition that this is more of a typography than a correct language usage question. In the "lol !" case, the space is just a hack, better kerning is the real solution. – dbkk Jul 8 '12 at 11:00
This does not match actual English convention. – Mechanical snail Oct 2 '12 at 7:12
I usually give conventions a miss. Especially if there's a decent ball game on at the same time. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 25 '13 at 11:28

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 21 '13 at 14:24

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