Part 02. On the correct use of : word spaces, tabs and first line indents

Word spaces

Press the space bar, insert a word space.

It’s that simple. Word spaces are likely the most used white-space/formatting/non-printing character. They’re represented by a single dot when they are enabled and visible in your word processor.

The issue with word spaces is how often they’re misused for alignment purposes, suffering as paragraph spaces do.

In relation to punctuation

Should I add one or two spaces after a period? What about before and after dashes, colons?

The most important rule to remember is that you should most often use one (1) word space after a punctuation symbol. Not two (2), only one. It used to be common to add two spaces at the end of a sentence, largely due to the way a typewriter worked. It’s not anymore.

This applies in almost every case to commas, periods, colons, semi-colons, interrogation, exclamation marks, etc. when they are used as structural parts of a sentence.

Of course, there are tons of exceptions. For example, spaces and punctuation used for measurements, distance, temperature, degrees, angles, thousand separators, all have specific usage rules. But that’s not the point of this whole thing.

When the typewriter was invented, writers needed to sort out how to make text as legible as possible. Writing on a typewriter was done through the use of [blocks]. In order for the typewriter to be able to correctly notify the user that the end of the line was approaching, there needed to be a way to reliably predict how many characters were being typed on a single line. For this to be possible, the typesetters needed to design the typewriters to use monospace fonts, or fonts that every character measures the same width. That way, weather you were typing an I or an M, it could calculate how many characters you were typing on a single line and alert you when you need to do a carriage return to go to the next line.

This process worked flawlessly for a long time. To make text more legible, it was suggested that two (2) word-spaces be added after a punctuation mark to end a sentence (according to English spacing, at least).

According to French spacing, you had to add spaces before and after punctuation marks, yet there was only a one after sentences, colons, and semicolons.

English spacing, or American typewriter spacing, did not place spaces before and after punctuation marks, but it did add two spaces after sentences, colons, and semicolons.

In modern times, the computer has replaced the typewriter, and new standards have been established combining French and English spacing. In the 1940’s, IBM was one of the first to produce machines capable of creating proportional spacing, as opposed to purely monospace spacing. In today’s era, your word processor will modify the size of the word-spaces accordingly, depending on the punctuation you’re using.


Tabs aren’t all that intuitive. But when you figure them out, they can be useful to align your content without creating tables. They’re represented by right-arrows when white-space characters are enabled.

By default, word processors add tab stops at set intervals, usually half-inches. You can also add your own tab stops by dragging them onto the ruler or by using the tabs preferences (double click on any tab in the ruler).

First-line indents

You may have seen it before : the first-line of a paragraph that is slightly offset to the right than the rest of the paragraph. It’s common for MLA and APA style papers. The way MLA and APA format guides suggest doing this is to add a 1 inch tab from the left margin, or even to insert 5 word spaces. If you’re being graded on formatting, always follow instructions to the letter. In all other cases, use a first-line indent.

It’s called a first-line indent and is sometimes used instead of paragraph spacing. Instead of having vertical space between paragraphs, they’re all stuck together; however, the first line of every paragraph is indented inwards a bit.

Never use both; it’s one or the other.

In almost all instances, you’re better off using paragraph spacing. It’s cleaner and more legible.

But if you insist on using first-line indents instead of paragraph spacing… don’t use a tab as a first line indent. Use the indentation function. Specify an indentation of 1x to 4x of your paragraph’s font size. For a paragraph set in 12pt font, use a first line indent of 12pt to 48pt.

Also, if your professor or employer insists on specific formatting (such as with MLA and APA formatted works), do whatever they say.