Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.

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Praisesong for the Semicolon

My T-shirt collection probably numbers close to 180 by now, but I’ve stopped swearing that I’ll neither buy nor accept new T-shirts. The newest shirt is pale yellow. It sports a large semicolon on the front and on the back it says: “The semicolon is not used enough; the comma is used too often.”

semicolon2Along with the T-shirt I bought two oval semicolon stickers, one for my car, the other for the semicolon hater in my writers’ group. She accepted hers with grace but promptly drew an international “NO” symbol on it with a red Sharpie.

Anti-semicolonism isn’t rare among writers and even among editors, but I don’t understand it. A writer who favors simple, usually short subject-verb-object sentences will seldom have need of semicolons, but is that any reason to hate them?

I suspect that sometimes anti-semicolonism may be a cover for the fear and loathing of complex sentences: “I hate complex thoughts” sounds rather anti-intellectual, but “I hate semicolons” sounds literarily discerning. To have a strong opinion about semicolons implies that one knows what a semicolon is, and that alone is enough to shut many people up.

As a writer and editor, I love a well-stocked toolkit. Every sentence I encounter, the ones I wrote as well as the ones someone else did, has its own needs. Punctuation marks are tools for shaping sentences, and many sentences can be shaped in different ways. Here’s an example, pulled from an essay of mine: “I’m an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can’t work.”

This not especially long or complex sentence could be punctuated in several ways, all of them perfectly correct:

#1: I’m an editor and writer. Without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
#2: I’m an editor and writer: without functioning eyes, I can’t work.
#3: I’m an editor and writer — without functioning eyes, I can’t work.

The first is the most matter-of-fact. To my ear it’s the most staccato, and probably the most emphatic. It leaves the reader to connect the two statements in her own way.

In #2, the colon sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two parts of the sentence. The colon suggests because or therefore without adding a word.

The em dash in #3 also conveys cause-and-effect, but more expansively — literally: em dashes take up more space than colons or semicolons and push the elements on either side of it further apart. Like the two-sentence option in #1, an em dash lets the reader make her own connections, but it gives her more room to do it in. To get a feel for em dashery, read a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems the way she wrote them and then with “standard” punctuation imposed. (This was done in some early published versions of Dickinson’s work.)

I read most everything I write aloud. Often I read aloud what I’m editing. I highly recommend the practice. When one reads aloud, the punctuation functions like musical notation: it signals pauses, breaks, and phrasing. I read each of the above options a little differently. In this particular sentence, period + new sentence imposed too much separation between the two thoughts. Neither colon nor dash quite worked because I wanted to downplay the cause-and-effect connection — it’s there, of course, but it’s suggested rather than stated.

Hence option #4:

#4: I’m an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can’t work.

Plenty of readers will swear up and down that they read all four sentences exactly the same way and don’t see an iota of difference among them. Some writers will swear likewise. Maybe they’re right, but maybe — at least some of the time — the punctuation works subconsciously.

When I’m reading for pleasure I often don’t notice what punctuation marks the writer has used, or even what word she’s chosen in preference to the various alternatives. When I’m editing, or reviewing, or just rereading to figure out How did she do that? — then I notice. Craft is often self-effacing and invisible to the casual observer, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

So my toolkit is amply stocked with semicolons, and I keep them near the front where they won’t get lost. If yours drift toward the back, or get buried under commas and dashes and colons, that’s fine with me. But don’t banish them altogether. A writer who eschews semicolons is like a carpenter who doesn’t have a Phillips head screwdriver (several of them!) in her toolbox. Sure, you can often make do with the tools you’ve got, but you can achieve more precision and (dare I say it?) elegance if you’ve got exactly the right tool for the job.

P.S. for semicolon fans: Semicolon T-shirts, mugs, stickers, and tote bag can be had on Cafepress.