All the key on the keyboard have something written on them which more or less describes their functionality, except for, traditionally, the Space bar.

Space bar

Why don't the majority of keyboard space bar buttons have anything printed on them, potentially leaving users guessing what it does?


8 Answers 8


Like most the other keys, the space bar is marked with the glyph of the character it makes.

  • 31
    My humor part of the brain saying "+1" and logical part saying "NO"... D'oH. Feb 5, 2014 at 12:24
  • 15
    I contend that it does answer the question. It may not be the original, historical reason (as answered by Grzegorz Janik), but it does say, "Actually, it does. It just happens that it is marked with a blank (space) glyph." Again, not the original reason, but certainly a valid reason beyond "tradition" to keep it the way it is.
    – Travis
    Feb 5, 2014 at 16:53
  • 10
    Yeah... no. By that standard your Tab and Backspace keys should be blank too. Unless you have a DAS keyboard (or severely worn down the keys) I doubt that's the case. This is not really an answer. Feb 5, 2014 at 23:39
  • 2
    @Virtlink the tab and backspace are control character and a special key. The tab have a printable representation and backspace doesn't insert a character but removes it.
    – Braiam
    Feb 7, 2014 at 4:17

This wise question has its answer in Wikipedia (here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_bar), from which the above photography has been taken. According to it, the Space Bar Key has evolved from something that we would rather call a lever nowadays:

the "bar" was literally that, a metal bar running across the full width of the keyboard (or even wider, and even surrounding it) that triggered the carriage advance without also firing any of the typebars towards the platen. Later examples gradually shrank and developed into their current more ergonomic form as a wide, centrally located but otherwise apparently normal "key"

and the point was to make it similar to its ancestor, so people who got used to the old design would not be confused. Later on, it just made a tradition. Anyway, not every keyboard has an empty Space Bar Key, e.g. iOS touchscreen keyboard.

  • 3
    Good point about iOS keyboard. References, other than Wikipedia, would be nice also.
    – Pavlo
    Feb 5, 2014 at 14:14
  • 3
    And the 'shift' key on a computer keyboard has an 'up' arrow because on a mechanical typewriter pressing it literally lifted a section of the mechanical mechanism to produce upper case characters.
    – PhillipW
    Sep 26, 2014 at 13:11
  • How does this answer the question? On a traditional typewriter ALL keys are essentially levers. That isn't the reason it's blank.
    – Octopus
    Jul 7, 2016 at 19:05

In addition to the legacy already mentioned, it's intuitive for the spacebar to not have any label because it produces an empty space. In other words, an 'invisible' label is more representative of an 'invisible' character.

The other keys on a keyboard either produce a visible character or perform some character/display modifying action. You could argue that the Tab button produces a set of empty spaces and ask why would it have label, but you could also argue that Tab is more representative of an action and not a single character.

Simply put, the "Space" label could've been confusing because it's both a noun and a verb.

  • 9
    And what about the Tab key. It's an invisible character. And so is Enter. Feb 4, 2014 at 22:07
  • 2
    @BleedingFingers Still, space seems to be ... well, a space. Tab, Enter or Backspace (all "producing whitespace") are all "special whitespace", since the basic whitespace is simply a space. As well, what symbol would you use for that? My keyboard has a pair of arrows |<- and ->| on tab, an X in leftarrow on backspace, and a "stylish downleftarrow" on enter. What would you put on space?
    – yo'
    Feb 4, 2014 at 23:17
  • 1
    @tohecz Enter's function is not to insert a whitespace, it is to enter the typed thing, to send it to the computer. Computer interfaces from the time keyboards settled into a standardized design where command line; you always typed a line and used Enter to tell the computer you were finished. Using Enter in a text creation program for inserting a new line would have been a secondary purpose, which fits with the mental model of "finishing a line" already instilled by its use in the shell. Today it is most frequently used for whitespace, but the name is already here to stay.
    – Rumi P.
    Feb 5, 2014 at 12:18
  • 1
    I agree, tab, enter, and backspace are actions, tab = multispace (both directions), enter = newline, backspace = backup. It makes sense they'd have a name and glyph similar to what they do.
    – MDMoore313
    Feb 5, 2014 at 15:40

Not all space bars are blank. I give you:

enter image description here

Which, okay, doesn't so much have a "bar" as a "key".

  • 1
    You may see it again.
    – JdeBP
    Feb 5, 2014 at 21:42
  • 3
    This isn't an answer to the question, it's more a piece of trivia. The question is 'why do spacebars not have text', which you haven't attempted to answer other than with an example of why OP situation isn't applicable 100% of the time. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the question is about the rule itself, not the exceptions.
    – JonW
    Feb 6, 2014 at 9:13

The origin of the keyboard goes as far back as 1873 when Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first practical typewriter and the QWERTY keyboard which we still use today. A beautiful piece of machinery where all letters had their equivalent on their keys - and the brown space bar had no printed text on the key.

enter image description here

Image from Cornell University and the Sholes Glidden (1874) article.

But there are limited resources explaining why the space bar is blank. We can only guess what Christopher Latham Sholes idea was, since he died in tuberculosis in 1890.

  • 2
    "since he died in tuberculosis in 1890"... that slacker. Feb 6, 2014 at 16:03

All the key on the keyboard have something written on them which more or less describes their functionality, except for the Space bar.

That is, simply, not true in the first place. I give you PCD Maltron, which labels its space keys as SPACE. Here's a close-up of a 2-handed ergonomic keyboard (L89 QWERTY layout):

Maltron 2-handed ergonomic keyboard L89 QWERTY layout right hand side

Here's the Maltron mouth head stick keyboard, which (as with others mentioned here) has more of a space key than a space bar. It's still labelled SPACE:

Maltron mouth-stick keyboard mouth-stick keyboard
(source: mkprosopsis.com)

Just for variety, here's a Kinesis ergonomic keyboard, again with the space key labelled Space. Kinesis doesn't use all-capitals labels:

Kinesis ergonomic keyboard

It's not even true to say that old computer keyboards didn't label space keys, and that putting names on space keys is the sole purview of these new-fangled ergonomic chappies. The Commodore PET 2001 had a space key that not only was labelled SPACE but was labelled in red:

Commodore PET 2001 keyboard
(source: oldcomputers.net)

The mistake of thinking that space keys don't sport labels is rooted in the misconception that there a thing universally known as "the keyboard".

  • 4
    Talking of one's which don't have anything written on the space bar, why don't they have anything written on it? That is the question. Had the question asked are there keyboard which do have anything written on it? Then this answer would have qualified. Feb 5, 2014 at 21:58
  • No it is not the question. What you actually wrote is quoted. It's not what you're claiming now to have asked. And it's wrong in its premise.
    – JdeBP
    Feb 5, 2014 at 22:08
  • 3
    Downvoting this for not answering the question. The answer to "Why is there nothing written on a spacebar" is not "there is sometimes something written on a spacebar". If your premise is that the question itself is flawed for assuming all keyboards have no text on that button, then this answer too is flawed for not addressing the point in the question itself. This doesn't provide any insight into the situation outlined by the OP in the post.
    – JonW
    Feb 6, 2014 at 9:09

If you look carefully, you'll notice that the space bar on normal modern keyboards has a distinct shape that distinguishes it from the other keys. Thus, no label is needed.

  • As Don Norman observed decades ago having to label things is a sign of poor design: chairs don't need to be labelled as chairs, because they 'afford' being sat on.
    – PhillipW
    Apr 5, 2019 at 18:34

While Gregorz Janik's answer above explains why is is that way out of tradition, a possible additional reason is that the space bar a struck far more than any other key on the keyboard when typing text. As a result any text would be worn off quite quickly. Consider how quickly the spacebar gets "shiny" versus even the most frequently hit key (probably E).

  • 1
    This is a bit of an assumption. Just because it is used a lot doesn't mean that the text would wear off, and even if that were the case it doesn't mean it's not worth putting the text on there initially.
    – JonW
    Feb 6, 2014 at 9:27
  • 1
    Also, it doesn't mean that one would press the bar on the given text. I never use the precise middle of a space bar because my thumbs do not reach it in a resting position, so considering it's where you'd be likely to place such text, it would not get used. I'm not downvoting though, because it's an interesting thought. Feb 6, 2014 at 13:34
  • 2
    After reading your comment, I notice that the E on my keyboard has actually worn off entirely (and no other key has). I might start mistaking it for the space bar! Feb 6, 2014 at 15:31

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