Take a walk on the wild side—nonbreaking space edition

Why nonbreaking spaces?

Line breaks like

Mr.
Lee

or

World War
II

hinder readability because readers have to scan to the next line before they receive the information that completes the concept they’re reading about. In these cases, we want to keep the words together, and the best method is to use a nonbreaking space.

I once worked with a company that output its final reports from Word, and whenever something like “$6 million” broke over a line, the in-house staff would use a soft return before the “$6” to push it to the next line. In general, using soft returns is poor practice, because if you delete anything from the line above, you end up with a short line or unsightly gaps (if the text has been fully justified). It’s also poor practice for text that may be repurposed for a reprint or in a different medium: whenever the text reflows, the soft return will yield a shortened line that buggers up the flow of the text.

Instead, a nonbreaking space between “$6” and “million” would tell Word not to break a line at that point. It would keep the entity of “$6 million” together, without disrupting the line length.

You can insert a nonbreaking space in Word by using the shortcut key Option + Space on a Mac or Ctrl + Shift + Space on a PC. The control code for nonbreaking spaces in Word’s Find and Find & Replace functions is ^s.

Isn’t it a proofreader’s job to catch bad breaks?

In a traditional print workflow, the proofreader flags these instances of bad line breaks for the designer. But changing them at the copy-editing stage would head these problems off at the pass and allow the proofreader to focus on other typos and design infelicities that a global search wouldn’t catch. These kinds of global changes are also much easier to do at copy editing—an instance of where a few seconds of effort on the copy editor’s part can save the proofreader a lot of time.

Further, for text destined for a digital format—say a website or an ebook—adding nonbreaking spaces at the copy edit will ensure that the text appears as it should, regardless of reflow.

Wildcard searches for nonbreaking spaces

To save you from having to search each case individually, here are some wildcard searches that can help you do global searches for situations that require a nonbreaking space. This list isn’t exhaustive but should cover the most common cases.

Make sure you have checked off “Use Wildcards” in Word’s Find and Replace dialog box. In some cases, you can safely use the Replace All button; in others, you should go through each occurrence and evaluate it individually.

(Some workflows expect the designer to make these global changes. In InDesign, the codes are different, and I won’t cover them here, but the situations in which you would use the nonbreaking spaces are the same, so you can still use the list below as a reference.)

Dates and times

Times

Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
([0-9]) (<[ap]m>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) ([ap].m.) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

These searches will put a nonbreaking space after a digit and before “am”/“a.m.” and “pm”/“p.m.”

Months

Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
(<[ADFJMNOS][A-z]{2,8}>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case
(<[ADFJMNOS][A-z]{2,8}>.) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

These will put a nonbreaking space both between the month and date and between the month and year (e.g., June 15, 2014 or June 2014).

Transpose the stuff in the parentheses if your style is to state the date before the month (e.g., 25 July).

BC, AD, BCE, etc.

Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
([0-9]) (<[BC]>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<[AD]>) OR (<[AD]>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<BCE>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<CE>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<BP>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

These searches will put a nonbreaking space between the year and AD/BC; BC/BCE; or BP (before present).

Circa

Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
(<c.>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
(<ca.>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

These searches will put a nonbreaking spaces after “c.” or “ca.” for circa.

Punctuation

If you are using the spaced en dash (rather than a closed em dash), the first space should be nonbreaking. (The pound sign # should be replaced with a tap of the space bar when typing these into the “Find what” box.)

Find what Replace with Notes
#– ^s– Safe to replace all

Same thing if you have spaced ellipses:

Find what Replace with Notes
#… ^s… Safe to replace all

(In French, there’s a nonbreaking space before colons and sometimes exclamation points and semicolons. If the text was created with the French dictionary and autocorrect on, those nonbreaking spaces were probably automatically inserted; otherwise you may have to put them in.)

Names

Initials

If your style has a space between initials, that space should be nonbreaking:

Find what Replace with Notes
([A-Z].) ([A-Z].) \1^s\2 Probably safer to evaluate case by case

(If your style has a space between initials but no periods, then, for the love of all that is merciful, ask whoever decided on this readability-hindering style to change it.)

Honorifics, etc.

Again, replace # with a tap of the space bar in the “Find what” box.

Find what Replace with Notes
<([DM][rs]{1,2}.)# \1^s Safe to replace all

This search puts a nonbreaking space after “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” “Mr.,” and “Dr.”

Find what Replace with Notes
<(St.)#([A-Z]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

This search puts a nonbreaking space after “St.” Although the uppercase letter that follows probably makes it safe to replace all in most situations, evaluating case by case will let you exclude instances where “St.” is used as an abbreviation for something other that “Saint.”

And, once again, replacing # with an actual space in the “Find what” box:

Find what Replace with Notes
#(<Jr>) ^s\1 Safe to replace all

This search puts a nonbreaking space before “Jr.”

Numbers and units

The most common problem is a break between the number and “million”:

Find what Replace with Notes
([0-9]) ([bmqt]?{1,5}llion) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

This search should replace the space between any digit and “million,” “billion,” “trillion,” “quadrillion,” and “quintillion.”

For cookbooks, these searches will cover most cases where you’d need a nonbreaking space. In all cases you can replace all.

Find what Replace with
([0-9]) (tsp) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (Tbsp) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (cup) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (lb) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (oz) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (mL) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (L) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (hour) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (minute) \1^s\2

If your style calls for a space before °C or °F, do an additional search for

([0-9]) (°[CF]) \1^s\2

In all other contexts, especially scientific ones, there are too many units for me to offer a canned wildcard search that will cover all of them, so just do global searches as you come across them (replace UNIT with your unit name).

Find what Replace with
([0-9]) (UNIT) \1^s\2

For example:

Find what Replace with
([0-9]) (kg) \1^s\2

Miscellaneous

Find what Replace with Notes
(et) (al.) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

This search keeps et al. together

Find what Replace with Notes
(War) (I{1,2}) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

This search will work for both World War I and World War II.

In text that uses binominal nomenclature where the genus is abbreviated (e.g., E. coli), the genus and species should stay together for readability. With your cursor in the “Find what” box, go to the “Format” button at the bottom of the dialog box, select “Font,” then select “Italic.”

Find what Replace with Notes
([A-Z].) ([a-z]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

For text that features math, you’ll want to add nonbreaking spaces before symbols for operations (e.g., +, –, ×, ÷, ±) and possibly also after.

Be on the lookout for these kinds of constructions, where the nonbreaking space should also be used:

  • Section A, Chapter 1, note 5
  • Boeing 747
  • 137 Main Street

Working with designers

Unfortunately, in a Word-to-InDesign workflow, the nonbreaking space (Command + Option + x on a Mac and Ctrl + Alt + x on a PC in InDesign) sometimes doesn’t come through properly. Occasionally it renders as a fixed-width nonbreaking space (which you don’t want, especially for justified texts, because it causes uneven spacing) or as a weird nonsense glyph. Alert the designer that you’ve used a nonbreaking space when you submit your manuscript so that he or she can replace it with a variable-width nonbreaking space if either of those glitches happens.

Text destined for digital

Again, if starting from Word, the nonbreaking space may not come through properly in the conversion process, but they’re important for readability in text that will reflow. The HTML code for nonbreaking spaces is &nbsp;. Talk to whoever is responsible for the conversion to digital to see whether it may be best to search for ^s and replace it with &nbsp; (or whatever the markup system you’re using uses for nonbreaking space) in Word before you submit it for e-production.

Others?

This list is meant to cover common cases only. If there’s an obvious one I’ve missed (or if you notice an error in any of the above), please let me know and I’ll add it.

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