Software

Office Q&A: How to handle end-of-sentence spacing in Microsoft Word

Whether you prefer one space or two at the end of sentences, Word can help you apply that preference consistently.

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Image: Wavebreakmedia, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most of us no longer include two spaces following the period that denotes the end of a sentence. Whether printing or displaying a document online, the two spaces are no longer necessary for readability. Graham likes two spaces, and Microsoft Word can accommodate him, to an extent. In this article, I'll show you Word's grammar alert that visually identifies the wrong number of spaces. Then, I'll show you how to replace the one space with two or two spaces with one using Word's Replace feature.

I'm using Office 365 (Word 2016 desktop), but this article applies to older versions. You won't need a demonstration file; type a few sentences if you want to follow along. You can't set options in the browser, nor does it support the grammar space option. I won't discuss whether the one- or two-space decision is right or wrong; in my opinion, it's up to the document's creator.

Use grammar alert

There are two grammar settings you might want to know about if the spacing after the period character matters to you:

  • one space
  • two spaces

These are self-explanatory, but they might not work as expected. A third option, don't check, needs no further explanation.

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The settings don't undo or redo anything; instead, the two settings display a grammar error when you don't type the expected number, as shown in Figure A. As you can see, when the number of spaces doesn't match the setting, Word displays a red dotted line below the spaces. (To see the space and paragraph characters, click Show/Hide in the Paragraph group on the Home tab.) This setting is a visual alert, not an automated fix.

Figure A

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Word alerts you to the spacing error.

To access this setting, do the following:

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Choose Options in the left pane.
  3. Choose Proofing in the left pane.
  4. Thumb down to the When correcting spelling and grammar in Word section.
  5. Click the Settings button to the right of Grammar & Refinements.
  6. In the resulting dialog, thumb down to the Punctuation Conventions section.
  7. Use the Space Between Sentences dropdown to choose a setting (Figure B).
  8. Click OK twice to return to your document.

Figure B

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Choose a space setting.

The alert is helpful, but you still have to fix the spacing yourself. Fortunately, you can use Word's Replace feature to do so quickly and consistently.

Use Replace

Graham could use Replace to replace all single space characters following a period with two spaces, or vice versa, but it's not a silver bullet. If you have a period followed by a single space in the middle of a sentence, the Replace feature will catch this instance, too. If you click Replace All, Word will replace the single space with two—even though that's not what you want. So, be careful.

The best way to illustrate these settings is with a quick example:

  1. Click Replace in the Editing group on the Home tab. Or, click Ctrl+h.
  2. Enter ([.\?\!]) {1,}in the Find what control. There's a space between the () and {} components. If you don't type this space, the replace task won't work as expected.
  3. Enter\1in the Replace with control. There are two space characters following the \1 component. If you don't type these spaces, the replace task won't work as expected.
  4. Click the More button (if necessary), and make sure the Use wildcards option is checked (Figure C).
  5. Click Find Next and Replace to work through the document. Or Replace All (if you're sure the settings won't catch anything other than what you intend).

Figure C

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Use these settings to replace one space with two.

If you want one space but still find yourself typing two out of habit, use Replace with the following settings:

Find what: ([.\?\!]) {2,}

Replace with: \1

There's only one space following the \1 component in the Replace with string this time.

You could skip the wildcards, but doing so will catch all instances of one or two spaces, instead of only those instances following punctuation. It's terribly inefficient.

Wildcards

The wildcards need a bit of explanation; they look complicated, but if you know what all the characters represent, you can do a lot with this feature. Table A explains the wildcards used.

Table A

Wildcard Description
? Represents any single character.
[ ] Square brackets identify specific characters or ranges of characters.
{ } Curly brackets count the previous character; the comma instructs Word to find at least the specified number. Without the comma, Word finds exactly the number.
\ Allows you to express a literal character when it's also a wildcard character. Otherwise, it indicates the position of a bracketed component.

The Find what string, ([.\?\!]) {1,} finds a period, question mark, or exclamation point. Graham mentioned periods, but some sentences end with one of the other two characters. The {1,} component finds one of those characters followed by at least one space. This character works with the previous character and although you can't see it, there's a space between the () and {} elements. The Replace what string, \1 with the appropriate number of spaces following, represents the original character—., ? or !—in the Find what string's square brackets. For example, when finding a period, the Replace what string includes a period followed by the literal space characters.

If you think AutoCorrect would be easier, it would—if it worked. The space character triggers this feature, so the feature doesn't evaluate literal spaces. You could create an entry that replaces every period with a period and two spaces (or one), but trust me, you don't want to. It will drive you nuts.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

About Susan Harkins

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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