Semi-colons, then and now

Via Language Log, here’s a blog post/article by Helen DeWitt about the horrors of copy-editing, or rather of having one’s work copy-edited. The experience sounds hellish, and makes me glad I’m not an actual writer who might some day have to endure that indignity. It’s also makes for entertaining reading, so by all means check it out it right now.

I write about that here because of the hook, and indeed the title, Cormac McCarthy & The Semi-Colon:

[McCarthy] said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that’s just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things

Is that shocking, or what? Well, it shocked me. From what (very little, admittedly) I’ve seen of his writing, McCarthy does not strike me as someone who would take kindly to having his own punctuation “corrected.”

Like Ms. DeWitt, l like 18th-century punctuation, in 18th century texts. Punctuation is part of the language1, and changing it changes the style and character of the writing. The exact interpretations of commas and semi-colons have clearly changed a little since Swift’s time, but any confusion and distraction they cause us moderns is (to me) very minor compared to the violence wrought by removing them altogether. And at least in my experience it takes about a minute of reading to get past the distraction.

I freely admit that this line of thought of thing pretty quickly gets into murky areas. What about modernizing spelling, for example? Is that as important to the style as punctuation? And how abut typography? Are those long S‘s2 important to the gestalt of the day, or just annoying? How about the general equivalence of u’s and v’s in older typography? The abbreviation of “the” as “ye 3?” Capitalization and italicization practices? 18th-century orthography and typographical conventions are probably close enough to our own that those are minor points, but how about Shakespeare? The older the writing, the closer reading (or editing) it becomes to reading/translating a foreign language—by the time you get to Chaucer’s Middle English it is a foreign language—and I don’t pretend to have a line to draw

Anyway, I recently ran into an actual example of de-styling 18th-century prose. Inspired by an article in The New Yorker, I’ve started reading things by Royall Tyler. It’s great stuff, about which I hope to write much more later. For now I’ll say that I started with The Bay Boy, an uncompleted semi-autobiographical novel. I thought when I read it that it seemed awfully un-18th-century—the average sentence length was too short, and there just weren’t enough commas and semi-colons. I also worried that it might have been a bit bowdlerized—having also read the “shockingly blasphemous” (Jill Lepore’s words, from that New Yorker aritcle) poem The Origin of Evil, I knew what Tyler was capable of.

And indeed I now have confirmation! The Bay Boy was a reworking of the first part of The Algerine Captive, of which I found a facsimile edition. A couple of chapters are virtually identical between the two, and so provide a comparison. Here are a couple of passages, illustrating both stylistic dumbing-down and omission of classical references so as not to confuse us benighted moderns. (Caveat: I don’t know what changes Tyler himself might have made, but I strongly suspect nothing in these examples). First, a few passages from the modernized Bay Boy:

The same afternoon a tall, raw-boned man called me to the door, immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart whip over my head with the other. With fury in his face he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again. Aye, he would do it that moment if he was not afraid I would take the law on him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern and mixed with some of the young men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish, as the subject was race horses. I thought of famous horses in Greek history, but they had never heard of them…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me that I should wait on Miss Mina home. I declined. Rumors were spread about me throughout the town…

And the far more robust original:

The same afternoon, a tall raw-boned man called me to the door: immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart-whip over my head with the other, with fury in his face, he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again: ay, he would do it that very moment, if he was not afraid I would take the law of him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern, and mixed with some of the younger men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish; mine they could not comprehend. The subject of racehorses being introduced, I ventured to descant upon Xanthus, the immortal courser of Achilles. They had never heard of ’squire Achilles or his horse; but they offered to bet two to one that Bajazet, the Old Roan, or the deacon’s mare, Pumpkin and Milk, would beat him, and challenged me to appoint time and place…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me, that I might wait miss Mima home; but as I could recollect no word in the Greek which would construe into bundling, or any of Homer’s heroes who got the bag, I declined. In the Latin, it is true, that Æneas and Dido, in the cave, seem something like a precedent. It was reported all over town the next day, that master was a papish, as he had talked French two hours.

I am giving serous thought to seeing if I can spend a day at the Vermont Historical Society perusing Tyler’s original manuscripts.

1 Of the written language, that is, but we’re talking about writing here. Written and spoken languages are obviously different—in interesting ways—but I’m not competent to say much about that.

2 Long s looks like the letter f, but doesn’t have a whole crossbar, just a nub on the left side, or nothing at all: ſ.

3 That “y” was originally a thorn (þ).


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