26 February 2007

The Great British Punctuation Shortage

Today I started to read Larklight, by Philip Reeve, with illustrations by David Wyatt, published simultaneously in the UK and US by Bloomsbury.

Other British fantasies of late—Rowling’s Harry Potter, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Jones’s Chrestomanci series, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy—have been reset by their American publishers. In the notorious case of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Scholastic even retitled its edition for American readers, lest we be turned off by the idea of philosophy. Resetting those books allowed the publishers to change certain words (though others remain untranslated). But as Bloomsbury published the heavily illustrated Larklight in both countries, it evidently chose to avoid the expense of resetting the whole book.

As a result, Larklight follows the modern British convention of using single-quote marks around dialogue. And that brings up a typographical mystery that has nagged at me for years: the Great British Punctuation Shortage.

As far as I can tell, through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries British and American publishers followed the same general rules about punctuation. Even as spellings deviated (favourite, cheque, programme), publishers on both sides of the Atlantic used the same conventions:

  • double-quote marks at the start and end of ordinary quotations: “To be or not to be.”
  • serial commas: Tom, Dick, and Harry
  • M-dashes—the width of a capital M
  • periods after such common abbreviations as “Mr.”
Thus, this page from an early edition of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby shows double quote-marks and “Mr.”, as does this page from Dombey and Son, this 1913 Spectator review, and this 1914 Daily Telegraph review. Similarly, in 1837 Bentley’s Miscellany was using the serial comma: “pitch, tar, coals, and rope-yarn.”

My copies of The Strand magazine, published in London in the early 1900s (the first appearances of E. Nesbit’s fantasies), follow the same punctuation style as copies of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books published in Chicago at the same time.

In the last fifty years or so, while Americans have continued to adhere to those conventions, British publishers have adopted a different style:
  • single-quote marks: ‘That’s the ticket, guv’nor.’
  • no serial commas: blood, toil, tears and sweat
  • n-dash – the width of an n, with spaces on either side
  • no periods at the end of some abbreviations: Mr, Mrs, Dr
I first noticed these differences in P. G. Wodehouse Penguin editions unavailable in the US. Neea Paatero saw the same pattern comparing the original US Great Gatsby with a more recent Penguin paperback. Harry Potter fans have tried to puzzle it out. All these changes seem to head in one direction: using less ink.

When exactly did this style take hold? What was the rationale? I’ve looked for answers, but people don’t seem to want to talk about it, at least on the internet. The Chicago Manual of Style mentions the national differences, but doesn’t explain them. People spill lots of ink and pixels over the relatively minor question of whether commas and periods should go inside or outside quote-marks, but hardly anybody addresses the form of the quote-marks themselves.

I’ve therefore been forced to come up with my own theory: postwar rationing. Without enough periods or commas (regular and inverted) as in the glory days of the Empire, mid-century British publishers cut back on their use of punctuation while making minimal fuss about it.

3 comments:

gail said...

Punctuation is pretty much a mystery to me, no matter where it's done. I've heard that the copy editors at my publishing house get together in the hallway to laugh at me over the way I use commas.

I loved Larklight.

epeuthutebetes said...

With the exception of serial commas, I think the typographic differences you mention are due in part to the influence of Jan Tschihold’s 1947 typesetting rules for Penguin. Since they’re merely visual differences (except maybe in linguistics, at least on the western side of the pond), I think editors have tended not to mind in Britain.

As for the omission of the serial comma, which I do too except when I want to use a comma to disambiguate something syntactically, I think it’s wholly consistent with that trend of lightening things to make them unobtrusive and generally less fussy or pretentious.

One change I don’t accept for that purpose, however, is replacing hyphens with simple spaces when such conventions will create ambiguities (unless, of course, people really want that ambiguity).

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the reference!