Ask Your Teacher

When I was in the ninth grade and assigned my very first “term paper,” our English teacher, Mrs. Chance, introduced us to the MLA Stylesheet. Here, in one easy pamphlet (it grew to book length over the years) were all of the RULES. And I loved rules. My index cards were perfectly populated with my citations, excerpts, and data. My bibliography was flawless, because I read and followed the rules. I even got my mom to take me to the nearby University Bookstore to buy my own copy of the MLA Stylesheet, which I still have in my archives.

So checking out the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, I was thrilled to read the first paragraph of the entry about spaces after periods: “3.2.12 Space after Concluding Punctuation Marks. In an earlier era [emphasis added], writers using a typewriter commonly left two spaces after a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Publications in the United States today usually have the same spacing after concluding punctuation marks as between words on the same line.” Yes, I thought. I’ve made all of these points to the unbelievers. But then turned the page to discover a bit of frustrating ambiguity. “As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces…” Really? This admonition even includes a reference to checking with the instructor for a preference. So now, our hard-and-fast rule is reduce to “ask your teacher.”

Has this website just become a greater metaphor for ambiguity, for gray areas, for lawlessness? Stay tuned.

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