Austen's alleged failings in style and grammar: we need examples

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There has been a flurry of recent news stories suggesting that Jane Austen's famous style was not all her own but owed a lot to her editor.

I'm not at all sure that there is anything substantial in these stories. So far, the radio pieces I've heard and the newspaper write-ups I've seen have been extremely light on actual examples.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's version gives no examples at all. Her editor William Gifford is described as "a punctilious grammarian" (he is also said to have "repunctuated Byron"), and is said to have changed some of her writing, but we are not told what, or in what ways.

The story is about the work of Professor Kathryn Sutherland, director of a project that has assembled all of Austen's surviving manuscripts online for comparison with the published texts; but she says directly that "This is essentially a story about Jane Austen's punctuation". In connection with "that high degree of polished grammatical style for which Jane Austen is known", Professor Sutherland uses the phrase "the exquisitely placed semicolon". As far as I can see, this may all be about a few commas, semicolons, and misspellings regularized by a copy editor, which is perhaps worth knowing about, but hardly supports the Chronicle's headline "Jane Austen's Well-Known Style Owed Much to Her Editor".

Other headlines are worse: we find Jane Austen's style might not be hers, academic claims, and Jane Austen's Style? Not Actually Jane Austen's, and Jane Austen would have flunked English?, and so on.

The Daily Mail article does at least give one or two examples, but they do not increase my confidence that the story has substance:

One of her [Austen's] grammatical errors was the inability to master the 'i before e' rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who 'recieve' guests.

On other occasions she wrote 'tomatoes' as 'tomatas' and 'arraroot' for 'arrowroot', which according to Professor Sutherland reflect her regional accent.

I cannot see how these spellings could be attributed to a regional (Hampshire, southern England) accent: nearly all English dialects sometimes reduce the last syllable of tomatoes and the second syllable of arrowroot to schwa. Anyway, this is all completely trivial stuff, nothing to do with grammar at all.

Yet the Mail quotes Professor Sutherland as saying:

The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on the issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation. But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing. This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book.

She may have reams of solid evidence that Mr Gifford provided all of Austen's "poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase", or she may have just a bunch of sentences where Gifford put in semicolons that Austen hadn't bothered with. From what I have read so far, I just cannot tell.

The origin of the story seems to be an Oxford University press release about Professor Sutherland's project. There we read:

Austen’s unpublished manuscripts unpick her reputation for perfection in various ways: we see blots, crossings out, messiness; we see creation as it happens; and in Austen’s case, we discover a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing. She broke most of the rules for writing good English. In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.

No examples are provided of the alleged violations of "rules for writing good English": did Gifford really alter her prose syntactically? We are told nothing on this point. Sutherland is quoted thus:

The manuscripts are unparagraphed, letting the different voices crowd each other; underlinings and apparently random use of capital letters give lots of directions as to how words or phrases should be voiced.

So we are talking about messy, unparagraphed, hand-written scrawl, with the random capitalization that was common in everyone's writing before the 20th century (it is still often found today). But that's not the same as saying Austen's style was not her own, or that she didn't know English grammar.

About a thousand manuscripts of Austen's will be put online by the British Library tomorrow, and after that scholars will perhaps be able to find out whether there is really a linguistic story here at all.

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38 Comments

  1. Bob Williams said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    Austen did not recognize the comparative degree in adjectives and commonly used the superlative of two items. She even went so far as to specify that only two subjects were involved as in (made-up example) "she was the most beautiful of the two." She also used a plural pronoun for antecedents of (e.g.) everyone. These departures are scarcely destructive of style however much they stand out against the fussy rules of later grammarians.

    [You seem to have missed the point entirely. I assume that you know Jane Austen's novels from the published versions. The question is whether any of the grammatical usage in those was introduced by Gifford, the editor, and thus stems from his work and literary skills rather than her own. You imply ("Austen did not recognize...") that she is responsible herself. But that is precisely what the new research appears to question. You can't shed light on it simply by mentioning grammatical features you have noticed in the post-editing published work. The published versions (we are told) have been Giffordized. What we need is before-and-after examples: say, a sentence from Austen's manuscript of Emma and the corresponding sentence in the Giffordized version of Emma that went to the printer. And so far we haven't got any. —GKP]

  2. Jay Lake said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    Speaking as an author, gigging any author for irregularities in draft manuscript as compared to published copy is a fool's game. We all go through any number of iterations with idiosyncratic errors and omissions. And very few of us do not benefit significantly from our partnership with our editors.

    Admittedly I am a lowly mid-list genre writer, and perhaps these issues are different among the academically significant purveyors of English literachoor, but somehow I doubt it.

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    The famous example of a writer whose typical style was in fact that of his editor is Raymond Carver. Apparently Carver was most upset that his editor used to regularly simplify his more florid moments.

  4. Kutsuwamushi said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    Even if her editor did make significant changes, it's hard to imagine how an editor could be responsible for her style without rewriting every sentence. Austen must have contributed most of the style unless Sutherland is suggesting that she had a ghost writer–and I don't think that she is. Even editing to intentionally obscure someone's style is difficult.

    For some reason, the way this story is being spun bothers me. I suppose it's because we have such a comparatively smaller number of highly-respected female novelists. It would bother me less if the claims were less exaggerated (or at least backed up with evidence that shows they're not).

    [I too noticed that this seems to be a case of the press eagerly jumping on a story about how a famous woman novelist was really a grammatical incompetent and what we have mistakenly credited her with was really due to... a man! And it troubled me. I wonder if the way the spin has come out in the newspapers this weekend troubles Professor Sutherland as well. —GKP]

  5. Claire Harman said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    You are quite right to wonder whether or not there is any substance to the claim that Jane Austen's prose was significantly altered by any editor. There is no evidence whatever that William Gifford went ahead and made any changes to Austen's texts; all that is known is that he was sent the manuscript of Emma in September 1815 to comment on for the publisher, John Murray, and had 'nothing but good to say' of the novel. His remark about Pride & Prejudice that it was 'so pointed as to be almost unintelligible' refers obviously to printers' errors, as he was reading the 1813 Egerton first edition of the book, not a manuscript. Jane Austen herself refers to the typographical errors that have been introduced between proof stage and printing into Pride & Prejudice in a letter to her sister (29 Jan 1813) on first receiving a finished copy – 'There are a few Typical errors'.
    Prof Sutherland on the radio yesterday could be heard saying that she had 'exploded a myth'. Created one seems more appropriate.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    One clue as to what Prof. Sutherland means by "a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing" comes from her analysis of the textual variants between the first edition of Mansfield Park published in 1814 (presumably closer to the style of Austen's manuscript) and the second edition of 1816. It does seem to have a lot to do with commas:

    Unlike modern punctuation, which marks off grammatical units, rhythmical punctuation is apparently looser and less logical, being used to mark emphasis or or balance which often runs counter to grammatical sense: for example, or balance which often runs counter to grammatical sense: for example, 'It is felt that distinctness and energy, may have weight' (Vol. III, p. 3 14, 11. 25-6). Rhythmical punctuation characterizes MP(1814) Volume Three, which in several instances provides a better punctuation than MP(1816).

    Here's an example of what she calls "a particularly counter-grammatical rhythmic comma" in the first edition:

    "…though Mansfield Park, might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures." (p. 364)

    [More on this in Sutherland's book Jane Austen's Textual Lives (Chapter 5, "Speaking Commas").]

    [Both of these examples illustrate the same thing: she (sometimes) puts a comma between subject and predicate. This has nothing to do with rhythm; it is just a convention that was very common all through the 18th century (recall the troublesome commas of the Second Amendment). If that's all or most of what she's got, there is not going to be much to this story. —GKP]

  7. groki said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a singular writer in possession of a good style, must be in want of an editor."

  8. Harold said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    There have been books about Jane Austen's use of language, including grammar and spelling. I don't remember the titles but do remember reading one or two in the 1970s. Women did not have the same education as men and they were allowed certain liberties — some of the rules that we have now had not been established and the meanings of some words have evolved… The idea that her style — with it's high spirits and humorous antitheses and so on — is owed to someone else is silly.

    [It does seem implausible, yes; but again, we shouldn't prejudge the issue, we should ask for the evidence. Whether it is silly to say that her style is mainly due to Gifford is precisely the question that Professor Sutherland's research raises, the question that I am drawing attention to. —GKP]

  9. Terry Collmann said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    If Jane Austen's style was really mostly William Gifford's, how come we're not now seeing William Gifford's books lining library and bookshop shelves?

    [(myl) Austen's success owes something to her content as well as her style. And there are well-documented examples of editors who contributed in a significant way to all aspects of the works that they edited -- one notable example is Maxwell Perkins. But as Geoff has observed, there is no concrete evidence so far presented that Gifford did much to Austen besides changing some punctuation and regularizing some spelling.]

  10. axl said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    Those familiar with impending changes in the UK higher education funding system might recognize a considerable "impact" component to this project.

    [For those not so familiar with the UK, let me just say that there have been rumblings about how in the future research money is going to be handed out by the government only for research that can demonstrate up front an expected impact on society. No one is quite sure what impact is, but all academics know that they have to come up with some, and getting written up in the newspapers might be some sign of having achieved it. I recently received a circular inviting me to a half-day workshop that plans to "consider tools that aim to help social researchers and knowledge exchange professionals to increase the impact of their research and assemble a contribution story." One must contribute some impact, and one must have a story in advance about what the impact will be. This is madness for all fundamental research, of course, as everyone familiar with the discovery of X-rays knows, but it is a madness that is now accepted in the corridors of power. There is going to be (probably in 2013) an assessment of research quality in British universities, known as "the REF", which will place heavy emphasis on statements about the impact of the research. And so, according to the circular I received, "The workshop will facilitate planning and development of evidence suitable for the REF impact statements." What axl is suggesting by the comment above is that if literature is going to be able to demonstrate impact it will have to do some pretty dramatic things, and perhaps it might be counted pretty dramatic to digitize all Jane Austen's manuscripts and then claim they overturn everything we thought we knew about her work. —GKP]

  11. John Cowan said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    Rhetorical punctuation is not entirely dead. Naomi Novik's modern Temeraire series is set in an alternative Napoleonic Wars (and by "alternative" I mean "with dragons"), and uses some but not all features of the English of that day. However, what's more remarkable is that the entire book is written using rhetorical punctuation: when reading the books out loud to my wife, the rule "count one for every comma, two for every semicolon, three for every colon, and four for every stop" has stood me in good stead throughout. I'm amazed that modern American copy editors let it through, but they did.

    (The first book is called His Majesty's Dragon in the U.S. and Temeraire elsewhere — perhaps there is a legal problem with selling things labeled "His/Her Majesty's" in the U.K.?)

  12. Virtual Linguist said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    As I mentioned in my blog post on these newspaper reports, the OED has several citations where other authors spell 'tomatoes' as 'tomatas'. Moreover, Jane Austen probably didn't have the luxury of looking up tomato and arrowroot in a dictionary – neither are headwords in Johnson's dictionary, the best one available to Austen.

  13. Anton said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    As far as punctuation goes, I believe that many great novelists have made major 'mistakes' – if you take them to be mistakes. Franz Kafka almost always disregarded the rules of German punctuation –which were the same in Austria-Hungary as they were in what is now Germany, as far as I know. The first editions had been aligned to standardised German by Max Brod. But current editions return to the old, grammatically incorrect punctuation. I believe this to have happened for the reason that Kafka has come to be recognised as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century and people have difficulty thinking that a 'genius' would have made mistakes.

    Personally, I have never paid much attention to punctuation and have possibly made quite a few mistakes in this entry. If there is anything to be learned from Kafka however, it is that punctuation is there to create a good flow. For although Kafka disregarded established rules of punctuation, his prose was beautifully arranged. This does not solve the question on Austen by any means, but I would never devalue someone's grasp of a language based on something (I consider of secondary importance) such as punctuation or writing 'recieve' instead of 'receive'.

    What is more interesting is the question if her punctuation proves to be as flawed as it is claimed, if anyone would have faulted her for it, if she was not a woman, but like Kafka a man. It also seems to me that much of the issue revolves around people still finding it difficult to imagine a woman being on a par with the greatest men.

  14. John McIntyre said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    It appears from the descriptions in articles that Professor Sutherland has been looking at Austen's drafts. If that is so, I don't think that any author ought to be held to much account for the state of first or even second drafts. It would be more conclusive if the manuscripts were the fair copies Austen submitted to the publisher. I've been told that the fair copies no longer exist, so it may be exceptionally difficult to determine just what and how much of it William Gifford did.

  15. Jeremy Sanders said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    These claims seem to me like point #3 of Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Suppress_Women's_Writing

    The accusations are not only unfounded, as GKP points out, but are also consistent with the pervasive sexism in literary culture.

  16. Stilgherrian said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    Surely the key here is the wording in the Oxford media release?

    [W]e see blots, crossings out, messiness; we see creation as it happens.

    In a time before word processors, surely most manuscripts were like that? If Austen has a reputation for perfection, then that perfection could only come through the hard graft of re-writes — that is, "blots, crossings out, messiness".

  17. eloriane said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    What good timing! I'm studying Austen right now and just yesterday came across this passage in the introduction to Sense and Sensibility (ed. Claudia L. Johnson). A and B refer to the two published editions of the novel.

    "It is worth noting that A and B differ on matters of spelling and punctuation. Like most novelists of the time, Austen left such matters to the printers, as printers' manuals advised, on the grounds that printers have by 'constant practice' acquired 'a uniform more of punctuation.'"

    So far, every example I've heard given falls into this category: the stuff Austen didn't even bother with because she knew that whatever she wrote would be ignored by the printers.

    I only grow more outraged about this the more I think of it. Austen's style is not "the exquisitely placed semicolon." It is her perfect grasp of irony. You know, the stuff made of words. Because I am enough of a grownup to give examples:

    "Marianne's performance was highly applauded. Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one's attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which she had just finished. Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste." (Vol. 1, Ch. VII, pp. 28).
    Did you notice the semicolon? (It's in the last sentence, right before the "and.") Or did you notice the diction, the parallelism of the first sentences, the understatement and irony, the contrast between tone and subject matter — you know, the style? I've written extensively about this passage and none of the most brilliant bits– the contrast between being applauded and being heard, for example — could possibly be chalked up to an editor.

    Professor Sutherland's actual work seems to be purely about grammar and spelling, and she seems to be drawing some interesting and valuable conclusions about what she's seen– Austen is definitely "prettified", even today– but once again, the way the media takes research and runs with it to the extreme… well, it's deplorable.

    [Just one demurral, eloriane: you say "Professor Sutherland's actual work seems to be purely about grammar and spelling", but so far I see no sign of any conclusions at all that touch on grammar in the usual sense. It's all orthography (spelling and punctuation). —GKP]

  18. Bloix said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    Ben Zimmer-
    In the passages you quote, Sutherland says that the comma in modern grammar "marks off grammatical units," and then proceeds to give examples that are incorrect in modern grammar precisely because they do just that. It is impermissible in modern grammar to use a comma to mark off the noun phrase that forms the subject from the verb or verb phrase. So, in Sutherlands' example, the comma in this sentence is incorrect:

    'It is felt that distinctness and energy, may have weight.'

    But this is a matter of convention, and has nothing to do with logic or grammar. In Austen's day, the rule was different. There are many examples in the United States Constitution, like this one:

    The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

  19. Bloix said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    eloriane-
    The passage you've quoted is an exquisite example of what I was taught to call the "free indirect style," and Austen, if not its inventor, was the first author to understand it and to exploit its ability to portray a character's inner life. It's fair to argue that Austen was the greatest innovator of novelistic technique until Joyce and Woolf — and that of the three, Austen has had the most lasting and universal influence on the writing of fiction.

  20. eloriane said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    Bloix– Thank you, I knew irony wasn't really the word I wanted, you're completely right; Austen's style is characterized by an astounding and original use of free indirect discourse (which is the name I was taught). I was in such a tizzy I couldn't think of any name for it other than "that thing that Austen did, that nobody else did until Austen, that was amazing" and I didn't wish to be so obviously inarticulate.

    (Though irony is a close second, when it comes to hallmarks of her style, she was by no means the first to master it.)

  21. Peter Taylor said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    It appears from the descriptions in articles that Professor Sutherland has been looking at Austen's drafts. If that is so, I don't think that any author ought to be held to much account for the state of first or even second drafts.

    The article I read implied that this was in fact the issue – after her death, her brother said words to the effect of "Her first drafts were perfect and never needed correction", and people believed this until now. But it's dangerous to put too much weight on what journalists report, and I leave this as a comment rather than an endorsement.

    (The first book is called His Majesty's Dragon in the U.S. and Temeraire elsewhere — perhaps there is a legal problem with selling things labeled "His/Her Majesty's" in the U.K.?)

    Looks to me more like the US publisher trying to dumb down the title. I believe something similar was perpetrated on J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone".

  22. Mel said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    How in the world is it breaking news that an author's rough, handwritten drafts were messy and imperfect? Has any author ever written a perfect draft with no "write-os" or spelling and punctuation errors or placed where they changed their mind and crossed out?

    I've always seen Austen lauded for her sociological insight, not her semi-colons, anyway.

  23. Lenore Jago said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    I had the pleasure of perusing some letters Jane Austen wrote to her sister at the Morgan Library not long ago. I cannot recall the grammar or punctuation. What I recall are numerous pithily perfect characterisations of the people she encounters in her daily doings. e.g. one young family friend is described as his usual "harmless, heartless self". Ouch! The woman was a genius. 'Nuf said. (period. full stop.)

  24. Mel said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    Temeraire was the original title; the U.S. publishers switched it to His Majesty's Dragon. My guess would be that it's a little of the Philosopher's Stone issue and a bit of "book titles that consist of character's names are not very descriptive" (after all, is the average English person familiar with Temeraire the dragon's namesake, the Temeraire?).

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

    @Stephen Jones: Gordon Lish did a lot more than simplify Carver's florid moments. You can read some examples here.

  26. Terry Collmann said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 6:12 am

    Mel: "is the average English person familiar with Temeraire the dragon's namesake, the Temeraire?"

    I would have thought the average Briton might have at least have a recollection of Turner's great painting "The Fighting Temeraire", if only from trips to the National Gallery as a schoolchild, where the average American would not have that advantage. Similarly Alfred Bester's great SF novel was called Tiger, Tiger in the UK, where Britons were likely to understand the William Blake reference, but The Stars My Destination in the US, where Americans were less likely to have read Blake at school. I don't think either case is dumbing down: just accounting for different sets of cultural reference-points.

  27. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    In a letter to (I believe) John Murray, Byron attached a poem and remarked, quite casually, that he (Byron) could not use what he called "points" correctly and that Murray would have to fix them. So as far as Byron was concerned, punctuation had nothing to with his art or the question of authorship.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    @John McIntyre: Yes, on p. 155 of Sutherland's Jane Austen's Textual Lives (Ben Zimmer provided the link to the searchable text at Amazon), she says that we have fair copies of "juvenilia" and messy chapters of Persuasion that were rejected by the publisher, but otherwise the manuscript copies that the publishers worked from are missing. So yes, I can't see how anyone can judge the editor's role.

  29. carla said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    Stella Gibbons's "Cold Comfort Farm" (a work that pays more homage to Lawrence, perhaps, than to Austen) includes a character named Meierburg who is writing a book that purports to show that all the novels of the Bronte sisters were actually written by their brother Branwell. When her describes his thesis to "Cold Comfort Farm"'s protagonist, her response is "ah, it's a work of fiction then?" This story about Austen seems as much a work of fiction as Meierburg's.

    In another thought, I recall learning at the Jane Austen Museum in Bath that Austen often reused paper, writing her manuscripts in between the lines of letters she had received from a sister or another friend. Under those circumstances it would hardly be surprising to find legibility issues in the manuscripts, cross-outs, inserts, and the like, where an editor would have to use some judgment in deciphering text that is crammed in the interstices of other, irrelevant text. It is a far, far cry from "an editor using some judgment" to "an editor substituting his style for the author's own."

    At any rate, I agree with the earlier commenter who detected more than a whiff of sexism in the glee with which this story is being propagated.

  30. Ray Girvan said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    John Cowan: the entire book is written using rhetorical punctuation

    Has US punctuation diverged that much from UK? Looking at the excerpt, I can't see anything unusual about the punctuation. I've occasionally wondered if this punctuation-is-no-longer-about-timing thing is a prescriptive invention of the MLA that doesn't actually represent what writers use.

  31. Picky said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    I see no sexism; just the usual British media delight in demeaning anyone who has some acknowledged greatness. I suspect Austen will survive the Daily Mail.

  32. Daniel H said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:28 am

    I won't pretend I know every journalist's motivation, but I'd venture to say there is definitely sexism involved to some degree in how thoroughly the story is being propagated. The first time I saw the story was in a facebook post (from one male to another) that literally read: "[insert sexist joke here]"

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    I wrote, "So yes, I can't see how anyone can judge the editor's role."

    If I'd read the press release GKP quoted above, I could have. It seems only Emma, Persuasion, and the second edition of Mansfield Park were edited by William Gifford, and they're much "cleaner" than Austen's other published works. Before, Sutherland says, people thought that her other works were printed badly, but now it seems they were printed more faithfully to the manuscripts.

    This means, though, that whatever people like in Pride and Prejudice is not due to Gifford.

  34. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Peter Taylor: In fact the author, Naomi Novik, is an American, and the work was published either first in the U.S. or simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.K., I can't tell which. I also don't know which if either of these titles was the author's working title. She consistently uses the name His Majesty's Dragon on her website, however.

    Terry Collman: Tiger, Tiger! was the working title: the book was written by an American living in England (he recycled English placenames as character names), but is distinctly in American English. I don't know if the jingle "X is my name / Y is my nation / Z is my dwelling place / And Heaven's my destination" that is the source of the U.S. title is still known in England; it certainly was in the U.S. when the book was written.

    Ray Girvan: Looking over that excerpt, I note the sentence "Gibbs's round face was still shining with sweat and emotion; he would be taking the prize into port, and as she was a frigate, he almost certainly would be made post, a captain himself." Modern structural punctuation would require moving the comma after "port" one word to the right, because "as she was a frigate" is parenthetical and would be set off by commas.

    I have immense admiration for the very limited number of Americans who can consistently write BrE: Novik, Jill Paton Walsh, and Laurie R. King come to mind. Novik also has to deal with other changes in language, such as using show away for show off.

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    It was still there shortly thereafter, when they met on the deck, and the man surrendered his sword, very reluctantly: at the last moment his hand half-closed about the blade, as if he meant to draw it back.

    The first comma is almost certainly "wrong", though I admit to some confusion about precisely what is going on in this sentence. (I'd expect the comma if it were "…that the man surrendered…". The sequence of tenses seems off somehow as written.) The third is debatable.

    I should note that while I've "read" all the Temeraire books except the most recent, I've only done so in audiobook form.

  36. Faldone said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    Ms. Sutherland was on Morning Edition this morning. There is an item on it here on the NPR web page. There's also a link to the digital archives of the manuscripts here.

  37. Stephen Jones said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 1:05 am

    an astounding and original use of free indirect discourse

    Dickens was an absolute master of this; so much so that the reader often mistakes the character's view for the author's.

    Emily Bronte conjoins it with the technique of the unreliable narrator, with the result that possibly 'Wuthering Heights' is the best constructed 19th century novel.

  38. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    I should add here that eventually, after the press hubbub died down, Professor Sutherland did reply to the email I sent her. Here's what she said:

    You are right to imagine that I've been deluged by all kinds of responses. Some have been quite extraordinary and nothing like as sane as yours. You are right too that many of the news sources were keener to sensationalize than to inform. That, of course, is the danger of 'impact-driven' press releases. How do we explain to general readers what we do and what we find when those charged with spreading the message may not themselves be well equipped to understand? That said, my argument was first proposed in a book I published a few years ago: Jane Austen's Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood (Oxford University Press, 2005), and specifically in chapter 5, 'Speaking Commas'. The development of the web edition of Austen's manuscripts, which has occupied me over the last few years, has allowed me to confirm aspects of that argument. Briefly, what I am saying is that some of the stylistic poise we associate with Austen, captured in syntactic punctuation that enforces a grammatical precision, is not present in her manuscripts, where instead we find a looser more restricted punctuation often serving a vocal function. I think there is evidence to suggest this heavier punctuation was imposed by William Gifford, John Murray's talent scout and editor of his journal the Quarterly Review. But I am also saying that the punctuation of the manuscripts works with the speaking voice and that the more refined punctuation buys its precision at the expense of the manuscripts' transcription of a remarkably fresh and original speaking voice. I hope my chapter explains this better than the clumsy attempt above, if you have time to find the book and read that section.

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