Jane Austen: missing the points

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I have a piece on "Fresh Air" today on the Was-Jane-Austen-Edited-and-Why-Would-It-Matter-Anyway kerfuffle that Geoff Pullum discussed in a post a couple of weeks ago. After looking over the Austen manuscripts online, I concluded that the whole business was meretricious nonsense. What's most interesting is the extraordinary attention given the claims. It testifies to Austen's Gagaesque (Gagantuan?) celebrity (whose history is recounted in the recent, very readable Jane's Fame by Claire Harman — see below). But it also says something about the common wisdom about punctuation that sends items like Eats Shoots and Leaves to the top of the bestseller list.

In fact the two points are connected.

As the Austen scholar Rachel Brownstein puts it in a soon-to-appear essay: "After over twenty years of pop-cultural Jane-o-mania, a backlash was in order… We want to find this long-dead novelist flawed, and seize gleefully now on her grammar, right now, because we confuse morality (especially sexual morality) with correctness — as Jane Austen’s novels do not."

I took it as my brief to talk about the purely linguistic questions, all the more since in a recent book Kathryn Sutherland drew on a book of mine for her analysis of Austen's punctuation. But over and above the constraints of time and listener attention, radio isn't an ideal medium for exploring the subtleties of the semicolon. So here's the piece, annotated, and with a few cuts restored.

"A storm in a teacup" is the British version of the idiom, and it's hard to imagine a more apt example than the squall that blew up recently over the claim by the Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland that Jane Austen was actually a sloppy writer. Sutherland was publicizing a new website that has put 1000 pages of Austen's manuscripts online. According to her, the manuscripts are full of faulty spelling, break every rule of English grammar, and give no sign of the polished punctuation we see in the novels. She concluded that Austen's prose must have been heavily edited for publication, quite possibly by the querulous critic William Gifford.

It's a measure of Austen's rock-star status that those claims got international coverage as a major celebrity scandal. The BBC headed its report "Jane Austen's Elegant Style may not be Hers." The French media website Actualité led with "Jane Austen massacred the English language," and the Italian daily Il Giornale used the headline "Austen Revised and Corrected by a Man!" Or as one blogger put it, "Austen, we have a problem!"

Not surprisingly, those stories provoked a swell of indignation from the blogs and websites of the Janeroots. The Janeites are the only literary cultists who take their title from their idol's given name — the writer that that Henry James described with a touch of irritation as "Everybody's dear Jane" — and they're apt to take criticisms of her personally. And Austen's defenders made some telling points. For one thing, there's no evidence that Gifford or any editor ever took a blue pencil to Austen's prose, and we don't have so much as a page of the manuscripts of the novels that she submitted to her publishers. All that Sutherland or anybody else has to go on is the manuscripts for some teenage juvenilia and the rough drafts of some unfinished or discarded works.[1]

And looking at those manuscripts, I had a hard time figuring out what the problem was.[2] There are some careless errors, but these are rough drafts, and you can't take off points for something that hasn't been handed in yet. And by the standards of the time, she wasn't a bad speller. She was inconsistent about possessives, and she sometimes put e before i in words like believe and friendship, but you can find the same thing in the manuscripts of Byron and Scott and Thomas Jefferson — the rules just weren't settled yet.[3]

In fact it's pure anachronism to describe any of those things as "wrong" or "incorrect"; it's like calling Elizabeth Bennet a bachelorette. The modern notion of correctness was a recent invention in Austen's time, and to people of Austen's sort it smacked of the schoolmaster and the social climber. My guess is that she would have little use for people who went around clucking their tongues over misplaced apostrophes in grocers' signs — the sort of pedantry she might put in the mouth of Mr. Collins.[4]

Punctuation was in flux, too. Modern readers will be disconcerted to see Austen sticking a comma between a subject and verb or strewing dashes apparently at random. But as Sutherland herself noted in an earlier book, Austen often used punctuation to signal the rhythms of speech rather than the grammatical structure. (As it happens, Sutherland based that analysis on a book called The Linguistics of Punctuation that I wrote some years ago.)[5]

By the time Austen was writing, though, that rhythmic use of punctuation was yielding to the modern system based on syntax, which took the written language further from the intonations of speech. That's the system that shows up in most of the early editions of her novels. [6]

But who supplied the punctuation in the novels? Was it Austen herself, or her publisher John Murray, or some nameless editor or compositor? Nobody knows. And if we were talking about almost any other writer, nobody would care, either. Fitzgerald or Hemingway's literary luster wouldn't be tarnished if it transpired that their punctuation had been revised by an editor (though maybe Kerouac's would). But when people talk about Austen's style, they're thinking of those shapely clauses making their measured way from one semicolon to the next. And if it turns out the semicolons were actually put there by someone else, is it right to say that the style is hers?

Truth to tell, it's an embarrassing question. It reveals a certain obtuseness — about writers and style, and not least, about the semicolon. People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. As one grammarian put it, the semicolon is the mortar that joins two ideas into a greater one. But semicolons don't create a structure; they just point to one. It's nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it's nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one.

What's remarkable about Austen is the way that artistry shows up even in those ragged manuscripts. The punctuation may look slapdash or peculiar to modern eyes, but those complex sentence structures are always already there. You can repunctuate them according to the modern system without changing a word of the text, rearranging the commas and dashes and dropping in a semicolon whenever you come to an appropriate seam in the writing. You think of those masons of old who could cut stone blocks so cleanly and precisely that they fit together perfectly. Once the blocks were placed, it didn't really matter who came by afterwards to finish them off with a trowel.

1. Claire Harman elaborated some of these points in her comment on Geoff's post. She notes for example that "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."

2. I looked at parts of the working drafts of some unfinished works, like Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as for a discarded chapter of Persuasion. They're pretty messy, with numerous cross-outs and insertions — not surprising, unless you take at face value her brother's assertion that "Everything came finished from her pen." Sutherland says that "commentators continue to share this view today," but it's hard to see why anybody would believe that for a moment or what difference it would make. You can't achieve a "polished" style, after all, without the application of some elbow grease.

3. It isn't always easy to distinguish carelessness from the absence of fixed rules — or perhaps, from people's disregard for certain rules in composing their letters and manuscripts (analogously, not many people today trouble to check the rules of word-hyphenation in Hart's Rules or the Chicago Manual of Style before sending out an email). Austen was inconsistent in placing the apostrophe in singular and plural possessives, for example — but in that pre-Trussic age, did anybody really care about getting this right?

4. Since the 1930's, linguists have offered a doggedly presentist reading of eighteenth-century prescriptivism, which makes heroes of the grammarians who championed the primacy of usage rather than of logic (or "logic") in determining standards — as if the "usage" in question were that of the ordinary folk rather than the gentry. (Why would we imagine that the people who defended "usage" back then were thinking of the language of of laborers or mechanics?) Prescriptivism was a weapon wielded by the "new men" — often self-made, provincial, and commercial rather than landed — against the cultural authority of traditional institutions and classes, among them not just the high clergy and the aristocratic grandees, but the county squirarchy from which Austen drew her dramatis personae and her world view.

5. I should say that Sutherland's 2008 book Jane Austen's Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood is a work of meticulous textual scholarship, which makes some insightful points about the way the failure of later editors like R. W. Chapman to understand what Austen was doing with punctuation led them to misread some of her sentences. Sutherland may exaggerate the degree to which Austen's punctuation reflected the actual rhythms of speech — the dialogue was a highly literary artefact, after all. But nothing in the book has the tone of the claims quoted in the Oxford press release — that Austen "broke most of the rules for writing good English" or that "the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there." And one would like to think she had nothing to do with the heading of the release: "Austen's famous style may not be hers after all."

6. In calling it the "modern" system I don't mean to suggest that it was identical to the one we use today, of course. Take the use of semicolons. In modern English, semicolons cannot be scoped by other semicolons. Most editors would be comfortable with the (a) or (b) versions below but not the (c) versions:

1a. Every student studied a language; Mary took French.
b. Every student studied a language. Mary took French; Bill took Spanish.
c. *Every student studied a language; Mary took French; Bill took Spanish.

2a. You'll have to pick the kids up at the airport; Betty can't do it.
b. You'll have to pick the kids up at the airport. Betty can't do it; she has an appointment.
c. *You'll have to pick the kids up at the airport; Betty can't do it; she has an appointment.

But Austen's semicolons are frequently scoped by other semicolons, as in these passages from from the 1818 edition of Persuasion — note in particular the last semicolon in the first example, in which Sir Walter Elliot explains his objections to the navy:

Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of
objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of
 obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which
their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it
cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old
 sooner than any other man; I have observed it all my life.

She had a cultivated mind, and was, generally speaking, rational and consistent; but she had prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.

Some twentieth-century editions replace the last semicolon in the first passage by a period, though that doesn't render the resulting sentence wholly grammatical according to modern rules. Note however, that these passages can be easily repunctuated according to contemporary rules without changing the logical or rhetorical relations among the clauses (though most editors understandably prefer to retain some features of the original). That is, the points don't create the structure; it was there first.

By the same token, the nineteenth-century system permitted a sentence-final adjunct to be left-delimited by a semicolon rather than a comma:

His good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own.

In fact both of these constructions were common in published works until the late nineteenth century and even beyond:

But some say, history moves in circles; and that may be very well argued; I have argued it myself. George Eliot, Middlemarch

The two ladies had been in the church when he arrived; women liked to sit in churches; they had been there more than half an hour, and the mother had not enough of it even yet. Henry James, Confidence

The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author's mind has subjected to a process of simplification. T. S. Eliot, "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama"

I have this theory that the modern ungrammaticality of both types follows from the dropping of a single rule from the grammar of the written language, but I'll leave that for another broadcast. For much more on the way these rules fit into the larger system of punctuation, you can look at the chapter on punctuation that Ted Briscoe, Rodney Huddleston and I contributed to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.


  1. Z. D. Smith said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    "Prescriptivism was a weapon wielded by the "new men" — often self-made, provincial, and commercial rather than landed — against the cultural authority of traditional institutions and classes, among them not just the high clergy and the aristocratic grandees, but the county squirarchy from which Austen drew her dramatis personae and her world view."

    Within a veritable sea of apparent rancor and calumny over the fact that a novelist's rough drafts tend often to forsake polished punctuation (to be honest, I think many novelists actually see that sloppiness as their prerogative—theirs is to create, to do the hard and brilliant work of composition; let the buzzing editors do what they want with the jots and tittles), the above assertion is terribly interesting and novel to me. Can you offer any background information or literature?

    Of course we are well acquainted with the hardening of many rules of spelling and punctuation and the concomitant rise of prescriptivism, but I have never heard of it explained as a weapon against established cultural authority, and I would love to read more about the mechanism thereof.

  2. Rubrick said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    This is the first time I'd encountered "squirarchy". Wonderful.

    I'm curious whether any scholarly work has been done Tolkien's unorthodox use of the colon, which he often employed similarly to the "serial semicolon" mentioned above.

  3. John Cowan said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    Z.D., I would say that any system of formal rules is to some extent a rebellion against earlier systems where all rules are informal: things are either Done or Not Done, but nobody can tell you why. If all that's needed is to conform to formal, learnable, publishable rules — why, anybody at all could join the ruling class. That's why George Washington, aspiring aristocrat, went so far as to write down his own rulebook for personal used, based (of course) on other rulebooks he had read. Later on, such rulebook rules become the property of the elite in any case, but in their earlier stages they are a mechanism for social mobility and even reform, since what is written can in the end be changed.

    As I commented on Language Hat some while back:

    But yon beldame's meaning methinks was as plain as a pikestaff: she was correcting a fault not in comprehension but in courtoisie. "All them boys" may be well enough for rag, tag, and bobtail, but most sternly to be avoided when having speech with a lady.

  4. John Cowan said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    As someone who has read both Tolkien and Naomi Novik's never-sufficiently-to-be-advertised Temeraire series out loud, I find that the "count one for the comma, two for the semi, three for the colon, and four for the stop" (to the tune of "Blue Suede Shoes") always produces the right amount of pause at each mark. I use structural punctuation in my own writing, but I greatly appreciate rhetorical punctuation in the works of others.

  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    On semicolons. I have remarked in the past that my freshman comp students invariably use them incorrectly, by which I mean that their usage is inconsistent with SWAE.

    Curiously, however, many of the structures they end up with allow "a sentence-final adjunct to be left-delimited by a semicolon rather than a comma," which of course I have noticed in a lot of 19th century writing. And these kids do not read! It's as if they have independently concluded that a comma would be insufficient to set off an appositive or conjunctive, rejected the period as too strong, and settled on the semicolon. I see the pattern again and again.

    An alternate hypothesis is that K-12 educators widely instruct our youth to use this point in a manner more consistent with Jane Austen than with the handbooks sitting on their desks.

  6. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    As a young copy editor in a strange country (Canada), I once had the temerity to change an eminent barrister's semicolons to colons. My understanding of the distinction was that colons point straight ahead from what precedes to what follows ("Green is made up of two primary colors: yellow and blue"), while semicolons point slightly off to the side, as the comma part on the bottom seems to suggest ("Green is made up of two primary colors; so is purple"). His semicolons acted like colons, and I didn't feel I could permit that. The result was a very illuminating phone conversation, in which he informed me that he modeled his prose on Jeremy Taylor's Holy Dying and would like his semicolons back. I still don't know exactly what the connection was–whether he modeled his punctuation on Jeremy Taylor too (though for some reason not his spelling), or whether, more generally, he had read many distinguished books that doubtless I hadn't, and ought to know more about these things than I did. In any case, he got his semicolons back.

  7. Josh said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    ZD, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma" by Jack Lynch covers the subject, at least with regards to spelling normalization. I first heard about it here on LL a while back. I'd highly recommend it. It was an interesting read.

  8. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    "Some twentieth-century editions replace the last semicolon in the first passage by a period, though that doesn't render the resulting sentence wholly grammatical according to modern rules."

    As an entertaining exercise, I'm just looking at what I'd do to the five semicolons in the first passage and the two semicolons in the second, if I were trying to make them conform to modern rules. Here's what I think. First passage: (1) Replace with comma, (2) Leave alone, (3) Replace with comma, (4) Replace with full stop, (5) Leave alone. Second passage: (1) Replace with comma, (2) Replace with full stop.

  9. Amy Stoller said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    Thank you for a breath of fresh air. I do wish idiots would leave Jane Austen alone. They have more than enough topics to be idiotic about.

    As for "finished from her pen": It could be brotherly hyperbole, but it could also be a strike against anyone who might have suggested that a man (perhaps her father or one of her brothers?) had written all or part of Austen's work. I don't know the context for the remark.

  10. Mark P said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

    I just glanced at one of the examples they show of one of the manuscripts, and, as I suspected, Jane Austen did not use a word processor. Why should it come as a surprise to anyone that a handwritten draft should look messy and unfinished? Possibly even not punctuated as it might be in the finished form? Especially since it was not written as, for example, a letter that might be expected to be more carefully penned. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the finished product based on a draft like that seems unsupportable.

  11. Mark F. said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    I don't think Austen was immune to the notion that correct use of language correlated with some kind of overall worthiness. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor's rival Lucy has issues with subject-verb agreement, if I remember correctly.

    GN: You're quite right. Austen was attuned to features of grammar that betrayed one's social class and regarded poor spelling as a signaling a lack of education or worse, an indifference to it. But the doctrine of correctness, as it was developed in the eighteenth century, went beyond that — the idea was that there were principles of logic, analogy, and the like that trumped the facts of usage, even by elite speakers. Hence all the familiar rules involving pronoun case, split infinitives, modification of "incomparables" like perfect, and the like, which weren't grounded in elite speech. (In a passage in Language28.1 , Bloomfield went to convoluted lengths to try to make this connection, suggesting that the upper-class speaker who contends that "It is I" is correct must be mistakenly attributing that usage to an even more prestigious group somewhere.) And hence the fetishization of the rules of punctuation that Austen is accused of having "broken." That is, "correct" implies something more than "standard" or "received."

  12. MJ said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    Pre-Trussic age–brilliant!

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    @Rubrick: Usually spelled squirearchy, if you want to look for examples.

    @John Cowan: Since you mention Tolkien, Gandalf says, "'We did not come here to waste words in treating with Sauron, faithless and accursed; still less with one of his slaves. Begone!'"

    Two pages later, "At Pippin's side Beregond was stunned and overborne, and he fell: and the great troll-chief that smote him bent down over him, reaching out a clutching claw; for these fell creatures would bit the throats of those they threw down."

    If I understand this correctly, here are examples from the present century:

    "At that she stood straighter; and although she did not smile, it seemed almost she did."

    "Uns and Pouk made our camp while I saw to Cloud, and Mani offered to climb a tree—tall ones are rare in Jotunland, but there were a few there—and keep watch; for cats, as he said, see by dark nearly as well as Angrborn."

    Gene Wolfe, The Wizard (2004).

  14. John F said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    Any time I look back on things I've written I think they're awful. There'll be missing words, simple spelling errors and awkward syntax, if not downright broken rules. And that's after drafting, and with the aid of a computer.

    I like language rules as much as the next man, if not more, but I'm not going to hold Jane Austen's drafts to an higher standard than anything I've written.

  15. marta said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    a lot of those sentences of our dear jane look to me an awful lot like virgina woolf being, you know, all "modern" and "innovative.". (i'm a huge fan of both of them by the way.)

  16. linda seebach said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    "Janeroots"; has Xroots been formally inducted into the hall of snowclones?

  17. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    This is a side point, but I must say, it always surprises me when people (including many of you on LL) use novelists' and poets' work as justification for grammatical practices — 'if it was good enough for Byron, it should be good enough for us'. For one thing, literary figures makes mistakes, too, and so — in the modern world where there are such things — do their editors and copyeditors. For another, they're artists, after all, and often deliberately bend or break rules. This doesn't necessarily make the rules nugatory — or give them strength for that matter. It's simply irrelevant.

    Moreover, I disagree when you say "Fitzgerald or Hemingway's literary luster wouldn't be tarnished if it transpired that their punctuation had been revised by an editor". Fitzgerald was a notoriously bad speller; this is trivial. But Hemingway's punctuation is the heart of his style, and discovering that someone else had had a marked hand in determining it would indeed be a bit of a shocker — closer to the controversy surrounding Gordon Lish's apparent creation of Raymond Carver's prose style.

    As for Austen, let us agree that early drafts and unpublished work should be ignored, at least in this debate. In my own case, anyway, making sure my punctuation is as I want it to be is saved for the latest and last revisions.

  18. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    …for example, that should be "make mistakes", not "makes mistakes".

  19. John Cowan said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    JL: if the usage of those who, by general agreement, are the creators of the best that has been said in our English language, then whose usage does count? Not the usage of the authors of rulebooks: it has been shown over and over that they don't obey their own rules.

  20. John Cowan said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Sorry: "if not".

  21. Amy West said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    The impression that I got about the emergence of prescriptivism from David Crystal's _The Fight for English_ was that it was a reaction from the top down of the increasing literacy of the middle and lower classes. Nunberg here offers the inverse: that it was from the bottom up, if you will, "bottom" here being socially-rising members of the lower and middle classes. I'm intrigued by this contrast and would like to be pointed in the direction of stuff to investigate this *apparent* contradiction.

  22. Another MJ said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:11 pm


    I don't think anyone on LL treats one instance of one individual (e.g. Byron) violating supposed rule X as conclusive evidence that X is not a rule. But if you find many instances in many authors for many centuries violating rule X (e.g. don't split infinitives), what sense does it make (and I mean that literally: what could it possibly mean) to say that X is a rule after all, it's just that no one has ever known it or used it until some 18th Century pedant came along?

    As for Hemmingway's style, I doubt that punctuation was the heart of it. The Wikipedia page on Hemmingway's style contains this quote from the NYTimes: "No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame." I don't really see how commas or semicolons can make one's prose lean, hard, or athletic. Yeah, Hemmingway eschewed long sentences and thus abandoned colons and semicolons, but that's not what made his sentences short; his writing short sentences made them short. Besides, I'm not sure not doing things (not using certain punctuation marks) can be the heart of your style. Doesn't the heart of your style have to be something you *do* do?

  23. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    @John Cowan: Well, it depends on who's using the rules and what they're using them for. For the most part, I think rules are for ordinary speakers and prose writers, who are more interested in being clear and effective than in producing an aesthetic effect. Accordingly, the rules should be made by them — in fact, I suspect, most rules, including those that govern inner-city or youth subcultural language, are made by the general members of that group, not it's stellar figures.

    To take a crude example: the fact that e.e. cummings declined to use capitals has no bearing at all on whether the rest of us do (and yes, I have noticed that many of the emails I received are uncapitalized, which is odd since most word processing programs will automatically capitalize after a period if you ask them, too; so laziness can't explain it. But I don't think cummings does, either.)

    Granted, cummings is not really considered a Major Poet these days, but it was the most vivid example that came immediately to mind.

    Here's another: Michael Herr, who I think is one of the very greatest non-fiction prose stylists of our times, using comma splices regularly. Here's an example from Dispatches: “They got savaged a lot and softened a lot, their secret brutalized them and very often it made them beautiful”. This is a bit jarring at first, but soon becomes very effective. Still, I don't think his particular (mis)use of that technique does, or should, make it into common usage, or should be used to excuse someone who uses it out of carelessness or ignorance.

  24. Leonardo Boiko said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    I was taught that the period doesn’t represent a pause but marks instead the end of a sentence which, in speak, would be delimited by a falling of global (supra-segmental) intonation.

  25. Mark F. said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    JL — You are giving examples of rules that are broken by established writers, but no answer to the question of where the rules come from if not from the usage of actual writers (and speakers).

    Certainly, if a single author regularly uses a construction that is systematically avoided by almost everyone else, then it makes not to treat that author's usage as normative.

    But what do you do with a construction like Singular They, which has been used at both high and low stylistic levels by a large variety of writers for centuries? You could certainly find evidence that it's also been actively avoided by some of the best writers for centuries, which could be the basis for a usage-based debate. But a lot of these constructions aren't being used by these authors for effect; it's just the way they write (I think Singular They fits in that category).

  26. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    @Mark: Yes, I agree with you. In many cases, literary figures use constructions like the 'singular they' for the same reasons everyone else does — not for aesthetic effect. My point was simply that, since these rules are, as it were, crowd-sourced, why bother with the argument that, for example, since Hazlitt used x, x must be OK? It's an appeal to authority that strikes me as irrelevant, at best, and misleading at worst.

    Schoolmarms and newspaper columnists don't get to decide what counts as good English, but neither do literary figures: it's vox pop that we should be looking at.

  27. Ophelia Benson said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    If you had used any other example I would agree, but if it's Hazlitt – well if Hazlitt does it that's authority enough for me.

  28. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    @ Another MJ: "I don't really see how commas or semicolons can make one's prose lean, hard, or athletic."

    Really? I guess all I can say is, I do. Hemingway's prose — like most distinctive authors' prose — is very much dependent on the rhythm he uses. Punctuation is a good part of what creates rhythm.

    "Yeah, Hemmingway eschewed long sentences and thus abandoned colons and semicolons, but that's not what made his sentences short; his writing short sentences made them short."

    I'm not sure what distinction you're trying to make here.

    "Besides, I'm not sure not doing things (not using certain punctuation marks) can be the heart of your style. Doesn't the heart of your style have to be something you *do* do?"

    This, too, is a distinction without a difference: is declining to use semicolons something you do, or something you don't do? It seems to me to be, obviously, both.

  29. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    @Another MJ: And by the way, not to be snarky or anything, but 'Hemingway' is spelled with one 'm'.

  30. Xmun said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    And E. E. Cummings should be so spelt, with initial caps (the l.c. style was just a design choice of his publisher's). See his own signatures, reproductions of which are retrievable online.

    Not being snarky or anything, me too.

  31. JL said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    @Xmun: Not snarky at all. I didn't know that about Cummings. Appreciate the news.

  32. Nick said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    I'm always a little confused when Hemingway is cited for using short sentences. I've never done any actual studies other than reading a lot of Hemingway, but he has a lot of simple clauses strung together with a bunch of "and"s. The following sentence is a good example:

    "Everything about him was old except for his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

    I'm sure I could find longer sentences but I just happen to have this one memorized. It is true that he doesn't use a lot of punctuation like semicolons, colons, or commas to connect sentences but that doesn't mean his sentences were necessarily shorter. I think it does play into the argument that punctuation can be a big part of an author's style.

  33. maidhc said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 1:53 am

    For another example of adherence to grammatical norms being an indicator of middle-class origins, there's Agatha Christie's Lord Peter Wimsey, whose refusal to follow the rules marks him as a true aristocrat.

    I've heard it said also that RP originated among the middle classes in the early Victorian era, and that the aristocracy clung to an accent that would now sound somewhat American. But perhaps someone more knowledgeable could comment on the subject.

  34. Xmun said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    It's not just Lord Peter Wimsey (who was created by Dorothy Sayers, by the way, not Agatha Christie). When I was a young man I taught for a couple of terms at Sandroyd School, a preparatory school for toffs (AmE: a private boarding school for the young sons of the rich), where at the beginning of the first term I made the mistake of correcting them when they said "I were" instead of "I was". I soon learned better.

  35. Jeffrey said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    Not only would critics of Jane Austen not write like her; they utterly COULD NOT write like her! Her quaint style is what makes Miss Austen totally unique and popular beyond measure. I would not ever want the divine J.A. to change the least jot or tittle of her work. Leave her alone!

  36. W. Kiernan said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Speaking of punctuation in Jane Austen, I once transcribed the last eleven chapters of Pride and Prejudice from a 1917 Harvard Classics edition for Project Gutenberg. (The book itself had to be old enough to prove it was out of copyright – that's PG's rule.) Here


    is a scanned page out of the book. See how quoted text is surrounded by single quotes, and quoted quoted text by double quotes? This is the opposite of what I learned in school; in fact I've never seen that in any other book. Has anyone else ever seen that before? How did Austen do it in her drafts?

  37. Bloix said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    When I used to read Tolkien (I've read LOTR 4 or 5 times, at least, but not in the last decade) I always felt that his punctuation was a part of his power. The use of a colon instead of period, as quoted above — "At Pippin's side Beregond was stunned and overborne, and he fell: and the great troll-chief that smote him bent down over him …" provides a tumbling forward impetus to the action, while at the same time giving a feeling of a strange, archaic, other-worldliness to the writing.

  38. Bloix said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    W. Kiernan – the single-double quotation mark convention you observed is standard modern British usage.

  39. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    It seems to me that the use of semicolons, or possibly colons, before 'and', 'but' and 'for', while it may annoy grammatical purists, is not really in any deep way a departure from current usage. If it is possible to use these after a full stop (and there are ample precedents for doing so, despite the annoyance of prescriptivists), it ought to be possible to use them after a semicolon. (The one before 'still less' is a rather more complex case, since that doesn't introduce a complete sentence, though it still feels perfectly legitimate to me, for some reason). I don't think Tolkien, Wolfe etc. ever use other traditional features of rhetorical punctuation, like the insertion of a comma between subject and verb.

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