The spaces between the words we read every day have remained essentially unchanged since the Early Middle Ages. Uniform, unvarying word spacing dominates how type is arranged despite radical technological developments in the past millennium in the way text and documents are created and distributed. But why are even spaces the norm, when decades of science have proven that uneven spaces add significant value to comprehension?
This is why we founded Asymmetrica Labs – to make this nascent discovery an accessible technology – and this is our story.
Almost every modern writing system uses punctuation. This function seems crucial and obvious to us now, but punctuation, including word spacing, took centuries to develop and catch on as practice. Brace yourself for a brief history of the status quo.
The earliest punctuation was developed around the 5th century BCE by the Greeks who used the paragraphos to separate text passages into paragraphs, or text sections. Before this point:
The paragraphos was followed by the dicolon and tricolon, used by ancient Greek playwrights to indicate when an actor should pause for breath when reading the work aloud. Aristophanes of Byzantium in c. 200 BCE used punctus, which were dots at various heights on a line: kōlon, komma, and periodos to indicate pause length. As you may guess, these marks evolved into their modern namesakes.
Adding spaces between words on the other hand is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively recent development. In the 7th-8th centuries Irish scribes began adding visual cues in order to help make Latin more readable to non-native speakers. These visual cues were the spaces between words that we know today.
But the use of word spacing with modern hierarchical punctuation (reminiscent of Aristophanes’) took until the 19th century to become a systematic practice. This system of separating words with uni-size blanks is used in many modern writing systems for Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts.
In 1951, North & Jenkins published a study  which showed that participants read faster and showed better comprehension (10.9% better) when the phrases were made more obvious. Multiple studies on phrase-based (also called “syntactically cued”) formatting have been published throughout the latter half of the 20th century which corroborate this important finding.
But why have these studies not been applied to mainstream reading materials?
One answer is that both the publishing industry and typography in general are conservative and slow, if not resistant, to change.
Another key reason is the intersection of technology, distribution, and ease of use, which have not historically been available to embrace and leverage the science for everyday use.
One more answer is that some approaches to phrase-formatting try to change people’s reading habits and how documents are arranged instead of augmenting the natural reading habits of good readers.
Take attempts to reform the English spelling system as a case study in technology reform. There have been many (well intentioned) attempts to simplify the unwieldy English spelling system. How successful have they been?
Not very. Yes, English does have one of the most complex system and rules for spelling. But once you’ve learned it, who wants to learn a new system – even if it’s simple to learn? And what about backwards compatibility – why obsolete all previously published books?
We wanted to steer clear of technology solutions that require users to actively learn a new system. Historically, no good solution has been available for applying this science to everyday reading materials.
Asymmetrica leverages new technology to bring advances in reading science to massive audiences. Several recent advances makes this technological feasible, including improvements in: (1) web typography, (2) web and ebook distribution, (3) and mobile display hardware. Incombination, these advances now make it possible to represent word spacing in a way that augments comprehension of a language’s intrinsic pseudosyntactic structure.
But what is pseudosyntax? Pseudosyntax is an early stage of comprehension where your brain makes quick, rough estimates of the syntax based on statistical properties of the language. Later in comprehension, your brain periodically revises this guesstimate and tries to integrate it into a true syntax, a slower, more robust representation that handles exceptions to the guesstimates.
Asymmetrica’s novel approach is to directly compute the pseudosyntactic structure of a language and apply the measured structure subtly, but visibly, to the spaces. We do this seamlessly and in real time to improve everyday reading. Just as punctuation and word spacing have improved reading and made writing accessible to the masses, Asymmetrica’s spacing (Asym Spacing) takes the next significant step in improving everyone’s reading experience.
What may be a surprising statistic is that 43% of Americans have low literacy and have difficulty with moderately challenging literacy activities. Reading ability can’t be taken for granted, and our success as readers can’t be judged by a simple pass or fail. Our lives in the information age are complicated, distracting, and tiring with constant demands to read and process more and more information. Those fortunate to be above average in reading ability may not be performing at their best in today’s highly-distractible, always-connected environment.
Everyone can benefit from the reading improvements Asym Spacing delivers. Even if you think you’re already a good reader, consider the following scenarios in which phrase-based formatting has demonstrated improvements to reading performance:
- Students young and old who want to improve their learning performance, either for their primary language or one or more secondary languages;
- Below average readers (Lake Wobegon children excepted);
- Busy professionals who read every day in a distracting environment;
- Readers who find that they often read while they’re tired, and want to maintain and improve their reading performance even under poor conditions;
- Anyone who feels overwhelmed by today’s information overload and wants to improve their experience.
Whether you read news articles, journals, books, or even your Facebook feed, adding Asym Spacing can improve your experience.
Today, Asymmetrica Labs is launching the Asym Browser Extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari for pages in English. In the background, the Asym extension will dynamically apply our language models to the contents of your web pages. After your pages load, our spacing will quickly “snap” into place. We never change the text content, we just augment it with better word spacing.
We’re pleased to provide this benefit to everyone and, in our initial release phase, the extension will be free. Support for Spanish and other languages are in the pipeline.
Content creators and distributors can benefit as well. Asymmetrica offers testing plans for creators to format their content using our secure APIs. Run A/B tests between the original content and Asym Spacing, and find out how much Asym Spacing can improve your content for your readers – we only benefit if you do. Delivering your content with Asym Spacing to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people will improve your users’ experience and your bottom line.
Keep an eye out for our future developments, and enjoy your reading!
This entire post was formatted using this technology. Did Asym Spacing improve your reading experience?
Let us know what you think on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn (@AsymmetricaLabs) or in the comments below.
 North, A. J., & Jenkins, L. B. (1951). Reading speed and comprehension as a function of typography. Journal of Applied Psychology.