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April 16, 2007 12:44 PM   Subscribe

I would like to know about the peculiarities in eighteenth-century writing.


1. The swash S (in manuscript, it extends below the line, in print it resembles an f with the right part of the crossbar missing). What were the rules for using this, since both normal Ses and swash Ses were used? (e.g., the swash appears never to come at the end of a word) Why did it go out of style?

2. The German-like usage of capitals in certain nouns. I notice that toward the beginning of the century, and into the seventeenth, there were more different words in which this was used, and sometimes they were verbs or adjectives. Was this only for emphasis? Why did it stop?

3. The italicization of words referring to countries, e.g. "the English law."

4. The use of certain peculiar methods of abbreviation. Thus, "James" was frequently abbreviated to "Jas:" Normal words, especially in the first half of the century, were often abbreviated and the final letters added in superscript after the word, with a period under them. What's the origin of this style? Why did people stop doing it?

Spelling and punctuation became more regular and standardized toward the end of the century. What forces influenced this process?

(I am aware that these uses were common before the eighteenth century too)
posted by nasreddin to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, and also the connecting line when "c" and "t" are next to each other.
posted by nasreddin at 12:52 PM on April 16, 2007


The rule seems to be that a small s not at the end of the word got it.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:02 PM on April 16, 2007

The connected 'ct' is an example of a ligature, where two letters are produced together on a single piece of type.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:03 PM on April 16, 2007

As for abbreviation, a lot of that may have been inherited from medieval scribal abbreviations, which in turn borrowed many of the symbols from notae Tironiae, which was a shorthand system developed by a slave of Cicero 2000 years ago! Some Latin abbreviations here.

One symbol we still use today is "&", the ampersand, which derived from a ligature for "et" (you can see it if you tilt them a few degrees counterclockwise and squint).
posted by goingonit at 1:30 PM on April 16, 2007

I think Samuel Johnson's dictionary is the major reason why things became standardized around the middle and end of the 1700s. Additionally, the lower printing costs (and better processes) would have helped.

Some speculation: A larger s as well as capitals used for the beginnings of words, would possibly have been to increase legibility. Abbreviations could have been used to save costs, both when setting the type and simply in the amount of paper used for the final work, like news paper headlines do (kind of).
posted by anaelith at 1:33 PM on April 16, 2007

And my best guess would be that this all stopped gradually because of the printing press. If you're writing a manuscript, you'd rather use a system with more symbols because it makes things faster to write down. If you're using type, you don't care as much how long things take to write down, but you'd rather have fewer symbols. Originally, typesetters tried to duplicate manuscripts as closely as possible (Gutenberg did, for instance -- scroll down to the section on appearance) but gradually simplified the system of type over the years.
posted by goingonit at 1:34 PM on April 16, 2007

To add to TheOnlyCoolTim's comment, a lower-case s becomes long if it is neither at the end of a word nor the second of a double.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:33 PM on April 16, 2007

I've commented on this before.

Capitalised nouns, italicised proper nouns, small-caps for important names, italicised quotations... all the norm in the late 17th c, as you identify. And the more 'popular' the source, the heavier the typography.

As I said back then, David Foxon talks in detail about how Alexander Pope imported the habits of Italian typographers for his own books, especially those designed for a high-status readership. So much of the lighter styling is in place by the 1750s, though that varies according to the perceived 'refinement' of the readership.

The long-s holds out until the end of the century, and it's the New Style / Modern foundries -- Bell in the UK, Bodoni and Didot on the continent -- that take it out of their font sets, in part because it doesn't really suit the new shapes.

Spelling? Johnson's Dictionary, in part; but also the increasing sophistication of print shops dealing with an expanded base of readers.

But read the previous thread on capitalisation.
posted by holgate at 5:49 PM on April 16, 2007

Another point: setting books in the lighter styles was cheaper and faster than the heavier ones, since you didn't need as many sorts in your working set.
posted by holgate at 6:05 PM on April 16, 2007

Spelling and punctuation became more regular and standardized toward the end of the century. What forces influenced this process?

Education; the wider availability of spelling and grammar handbooks; the increasing influence of the printed page, which tended to impose a certain uniformity on orthography. But you'd have to make a more fine-grained distinction here, I think. Handwriting continued to be less systematized and more conservative than print right into the late eighteenth century. Spelling conventions and punctuation tended to be much more fluid in manuscript than in print. I recently had the experience of trying to transcribe and digitize a junior naval officer's logbook from 1770—it had the manifold inconsistency in spelling and punctuation that one might associate with something written two centuries earlier.

3. The italicization of words referring to countries, e.g. "the English law." [heh]

Again, David Foxon, whom holgate refers to here and in the other thread, talks in some detail about Pope's use of italic and the implications of that for changes in italic usage in the first half of the eighteenth century. Basically, Foxon says, Pope starts out using a lot of italic for emphasis and proper names, and then uses less and less of it. Foxon attributes this to Pope's trying to aim for a more roman—and thus self-consciously classical—typographical style.

It may be more complicated than that, though. The older prescriptions for italic usage continued to be taught and recommended well into the second half of the century. Here's an entry on italic from A Compendious English Grammar (1759), showing the sheer variety of uses that italic continued to be put to:

the Italic being intermixed for the sake of distinguishing proper names, the titles of arguments or chapters, examples to rules laid down, words of any foreign language, texts of scripture or citations from other authors, speeches or sayings of any person, emphatical words, and whatever is most significant and remarkable.

In addition to Foxon, if you're interested, you could also look at Carey Macintosh's Evolution of English Prose Style: 1700–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998) [Amazon];

and Joe Bray, "'Attending to the minute': Richardson's revisions of italics in Pamela", in Marking the Text: The Presentation of Meaning on the Literary Page, Joe Bray et al (eds.), Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000, 105–119 (where I filched that quote from the Compendious Grammar) ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:17 AM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

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