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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
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  is your friend when you're doing French translation. –  Armstrongest Nov 2 '10 at 16:19
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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
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@Joey Adams: Would that be a hyperspace? –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 27 '12 at 22:07
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@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

4 Answers 4

up vote 31 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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Add to that a double space after a paragraph. –  Armstrongest Nov 2 '10 at 16:20
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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
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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
    
I suspect you are right-- there is probably no English style guide in the universe that advocates using this convention. But so what? There's no intrinsic compulsion to follow any style guide. Or put another way, if a style guide tells you to do something, it's only an "error" not to adhere to what it says if you were deliberately attempting to adhere to that style guide. –  Neil Coffey Nov 28 '12 at 18:21

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

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
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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
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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

This has come into common usage because of text messaging. Whenever you end a sentance with an exclamation mark or a question mark, the space is automatically inserted. Doesn't say a lot for the British education system, or for the standards of certain other people. I do believe in change, but not just for the sake of change - if the English language hadn't moved on, we would still be speaking and writing as they did at the time of Shakespeare. Goodness knows what it will be like in 50 or 100 years time - imho of course...

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ummmmmmmmmm... no space is automatically inserted...? –  Doorknob Nov 20 '13 at 14:12

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 21 '13 at 14:24

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