Doug Neiner
Tabs vs. Spaces

Tabs vs. Spaces

First off, quick definition: I am referring to the difference between using Tab Characters and Space Characters. Many editors support using the Tab key to insert either a tab character or a certain number of spaces.

Tab Character: Created by using the Tab key, and inserts a single character whose length depends on the settings of the code editor. Its length can vary from editor to editor.

Space Character: Created by using either the Space bar, or the Tab key with Soft Tabs enabled. One character per space, and is a set length. It will always be equal to one character in length.

Soft Tabs: Soft Tabs are created by using the Tab Key, but in reality only insert a set number of Space Characters instead. So a Soft Tab with a setting of 4 will insert Four space characters instead of one tab character when you press the Tab key.

Lets take a quick look at two images. The first shows a PHP function in an editor that has been configured to use Hard Tabs (single character per tab), equal to 4 spaces:


Now, lets look at the same file when opened on a computer/editor that has the preference set that a Hard Tab should display as two characters instead of four. Nothing lines up anymore!:


Here are some reasons for using Spaces (Specifically 2 space indents) instead of Tabs:

  • Consistent code viewing on any platform: web, desktop or print
  • Code takes up less horizontal space, allowing more to be read at one time
  • It makes code easy to copy and paste for online discussion and sharing since most online viewers render Tab Characters as 4 spaces or more.

One closing thought: This is monospaced code, not MS Word. Variable width tab characters have no place here. Type what you mean, and mean it. Flexibility here only brings confusion.

TextMate: In TextMate I have it set to 2 space tabs, and Soft Tabs on (which tells TM to use spaces instead of real tab characters). This drop down is in the footer in each TextMate window:




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