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Par exemple, le point d'exclamation !, le point d'interrogation ? et le point-virgule ; sont précédés d'une espace, contrairement à l'usage anglais. Historiquement, y a-t-il eu une raison ou un contexte propice à l'apparition de cette règle ?

On aurait pu penser que cette règle allait disparaitre pour des raisons d'économie de caractères, et de temps. Ce phénomène s'est produit en anglais lors de la disparition des doubles espaces entre les phrases. Y a-t-il des exemples de ce genre de simplifications dans l'usage français actuel ?


For example, the exclamation !, the question mark ? and the semi-colon ; all have a space before them in French (compared to English). Is there a historical or some other contextual reason as to why or how this came to be?

One would think that this usage would have deteriorated over time to conserve space (on paper) and time (to type that extra space). An example of this happening in English would be the reduction of double spacing between sentences down to single spacing. Or are there examples of this already happening commonly in French now?

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Related question in meta –  Benjol Aug 18 '11 at 6:55
    
This is occasionally seen in English too, perhaps only English of a certain vintage and style and from a certain country. I'll try to keep an eye open for examples. –  hippietrail Aug 25 '11 at 22:53
    
espace n'est féminin que lorsque tu parles du caractère (utilisé en imprimerie). Bien qu'à prioris ta question ne porte pas sur ceci, on pourrait l'interpréter dans les 2 sens. L'edit n'est pas indispensable mais reste souhaitable. –  Knu Dec 23 '13 at 20:50
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8 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Explication

D'après Orthotypographie, de Jean-Pierre Lacroux, à Ponctuation :

[…] cette convention est motivée, utile, efficace, salement subtile. Comme vous le savez — et comme le pressentaient les typographes d’antan —, le lecteur ne lit pas lettre à lettre. Les mots ont une « silhouette » ; or, quand elles ne sont pas isolées par une espace, les ponctuations dites « hautes » (; : ! ?) modifient cette « forme globale » et par conséquent gênent la perception du lecteur. Parfois fort peu, voire pas du tout, parfois considérablement. […] Ce parasitage n’est bien entendu pas à craindre avec les ponctuations basses (. , ).

La règle, et sa cause :

[…] les ponctuations hautes comme le point-virgule, les points d’exclamation et d’interrogation appartiennent davantage à la phrase ou au membre de phrase qui les précède qu’à la phrase ou au membre qui les suit… Dans la typographie soignée, l’espace de gauche est donc très inférieure à celle de droite.

Soit, pour du texte numérique, une espace fine — évidemment insécable, pour ne pas isoler une marque de ponctuation en début de ligne — avant la ponctuation haute (? ! ; :). Avec une éventuelle exception :

Seul le deux-points, qui établit une sorte d’égalité, est isolé par deux espaces égales. Toutefois, certains typographes préconisent de diminuer un peu l’espace de gauche (à mon sens, ils n’ont pas tort…).

Le deux-points peut se passer de la finesse de son espace à gauche, qui n'en demeure pas moins insécable.


Motivation

Orthotypographie, by Jean-Pierre Lacroux, provides us a good reason to do so, see Punctuation.

[…] this convention is motivated, useful, efficient, badly subtle. As you may know – and as anticipated by typographers from the old ages –, readers do not read letter by letter. Words have ‘outlines’. When so-called ‘high’ punctuation marks (; : ! ?) are placed right next to a word, they affect its shape, thereby hampering the reader's perception, be it by a minor or an important factor. This phenomenon is not to be feared with lower punctuation marks (. , ).

The rule and its explanation :

[…] high punctuations like the semi-colon and the exclamation and question marks pertain more to what precedes than to what follows them. In fine typography, the space preceding them is therefore much narrower than the one following them.

Which means, on digital supports, that a narrow space – obviously an unbreakable one, to prevent a punctuation mark from undesirably opening the next line – should precede ‘high’ punctuation marks (; : ! ?). With one possible exception :

Only the colon, which establishes some kind of balance, is surrounded by identically-sized spaces. However, some typographers recommend to lessen the amount of space on the left (which makes sense, in my opinion).

Now, narrowness being optional before colons, those spaces must nevertheless remain unbreakable.

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@StéphaneGimenez : Merci :) –  Nikana Reklawyks Feb 3 '13 at 19:56
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La première réponse qui semble donner une explication intéressante. Merci beaucoup ! :) –  Morwenn Feb 4 '13 at 0:48
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The rule is:

  • No space before simple punctuation marks (, . … etc)
  • one space before double punctuation marks (? ; : ! etc)

I don't see any explanation to justify this use over the English rules. But this surely have to do with the manual printing of documents, when we used lead blocks to ink the paper.

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You do not answer the question: why? Why would English and French have different rules (the history of printing techniques is parallel in England and France after all)? –  Gilles Aug 17 '11 at 22:50
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Note that, strictly speaking, the space before "double" punctuation marks is different from the one after simple punctuation marks: it is a thin space ('espace fine'), which is often replace by a non-breaking space ('espace insécable'), although I believe typography specialists would argue the two are different... –  Dave Aug 18 '11 at 1:56
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I don't quite agree with your spacing rules. While : is preceded by a non-breaking space, ;, ? and ! must be preceded by a non-breaking thin space. Entire spaces before them look quite ugly. –  ℝaphink Aug 18 '11 at 6:56
    
@Raphink: oui ça me perturbe aussi les espaces complets. Ce serait bien si M'vy en parlait dans sa réponse, ça me parait même incontournable dans le cadre de cette question. –  Stéphane Gimenez Oct 3 '11 at 12:10
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I think the main criteria is readability. Old typeset texts were not very strict with spaces. In the 16th century for example, you could find typeset texts that had spaces removed after comas to make a text fit on a line. It was also common to have apostrophes without a space of their own, so the apostrophe ended up on top of the letter following it.

While these practices of using non-breaking and thin non-breaking spaces have made their way to become rules in French typography, it is interesting to note that the Belgians do not add thin non-breaking spaces before ? and !.

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That was the idea with my answer too. :) –  Wok Aug 18 '11 at 7:46
    
We do not use a non-breaking space before those signs in Quebec French either. –  Aya Reiko Oct 3 '11 at 4:14
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There should be a non-breaking space before punctuation marks composed of at least two elements.

I believe this is for readability. It could be lost if people forget more and more about the existence of a non-breaking space, yet still want to avoid line breaks between the punctuation mark and the word before.

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That's the convention, but the question was is there a reason for it? –  eugen Aug 17 '11 at 21:37
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Actually, it's even finer than that: there is a non-breaking space before a period for example, but it's a non-breaking thin space before a semi-colon, an exclamation mark or a question mark... –  ℝaphink Aug 17 '11 at 21:43
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You do not answer the question: why? Why would English and French have different rules (the history of printing techniques is parallel in England and France after all)? –  Gilles Aug 17 '11 at 22:50
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As for the why, I wanted to convey the same reason as this answer indeed. :) –  Wok Aug 18 '11 at 7:48
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Au Canada, il n'est pas d'usage de mettre une espace insécable devant le ?, le ! et le ;. (Voir Guide du rédacteur). Lorsque nous révisons des textes à mon travail, nous considérons ces espaces comme étant erronées.

J'ai appris dans un des mes cours à l'université, qu'anciennement cette espace était d'usage pour des raisons de lisibilité lorsqu'on tapait à la dactylo. Son usage aurait disparu dans certaine parties de la Francophonie après l'avènement de l'ordinateur.

Malheureusement, je ne trouve aucune référence à ce sujet en ligne sauf ceci.

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La question reste essentiellement "pourquoi les règles sont-elles différentes partout ?" –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 2 '12 at 17:41
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Just a random idea out of my hat, pure speculation, no references:

The intonation given to interrogative and exclamation sentences is quite particular, so you are better off if you know the sentence ending punctuation in advance. So, maybe the extra space makes the symbol a bit more visible from far before, allowing the reader to give the sentence the appropriate intonation?

That does not explain the semicolon though.

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Maybe. But you then think French would have inherited Spanish's ¿ and ¡ (which are at the beginning of their sentences to do exactly what you're describing). –  Bryan Denny Aug 18 '11 at 4:05
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@Bryan: Great remark! Maybe both are two different solutions to the same problem. –  Nicolas Raoul Aug 18 '11 at 4:15
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  • If you look at older books, one used more space than currently. For instance, it was customary to put a 1pt space after comas. Likewise, parenthesis were more spaced around what they contain than what we do know. See for instance in the specimen des nouveaux caractères de la fonderie et de l'imprimerie de P. Didot l'ainé. The current taste seems to be for less space than before.

  • if you look at books on typography, some English and American authors want more space and even suggest to modify the font and increase the left bearing of the characters before which the french tradition but a thin space. Likewise, I remember that someone on a typography mailing list did a survey on fonts and found out that french font designers tended to have a smaller left bearing than English and American one. So the difference seems to be more in the means used to achieve the spacing than in the spacing itself.

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The reason is that historically, in typography, its a narrow no-break space which must be inserted between the word and the exclamation mark, question mark, the semicolon or the colon.

This narrow no-break space being available only in specialized software, different trends have emerged:

  • using a normal non-breaking space in Europe;
  • in Quebec, not put anything at all.

More details here:

For impeccable non-breaking spaces (original: Pour des espaces insécables impeccables)

These articles may also interest you:

A (he) space or a (she) space? (original: Un espace ou une espace?)
Colon and quotation marks: the "Minutes" (original: Deux-points et guillemets : le " procès-verbal ")


La raison est qu'historiquement, en typographie, c'est une espace fine insécable qui doit être intercalé entre le mot et le point d'exclamation, d'interrogation le point virgule ou les deux points.

Cette espace fine n'étant disponible que dans les logiciels spécialisés, différentes tendances sont apparues :

  • en Europe francophone, mettre une espace insécable habituelle ;
  • au Québec, ne rien mettre du tout.

Plus de précisions ici :

Pour des espaces insécables impeccables

Ces articles peuvent aussi vous intéresser :

Un espace ou une espace?
Deux-points et guillemets : le " procès-verbal "

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Note: le texte du dernier lien a visiblement subi une transformation automatique des guillemets français en guillemets droits, mais en conservant les espaces, ce qui le rend assez pénible à lire. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 25 '12 at 15:03
    
@StéphaneGimenez En effet –  Pascal Qyy Jun 25 '12 at 15:04
    
Les liens vers du google translate c'est une très mauvaise idée. Laisse le lecteur choisir d'y avoir recours seul s'il en a besoin. –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 25 '12 at 15:10
    
@StéphaneGimenez Il y a les liens originaux dans la version française... –  Pascal Qyy Jun 25 '12 at 15:14
    
« In Old and Middle French, the word space was either male or female. Today, he is male: the infinite space, a well laid out, confined spaces, etc.. » –  Stéphane Gimenez Jun 25 '12 at 15:19
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