Rules of the Road for Regency Language

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Recently, some writers online were discussing language, particularly the use of language for an historical period such as the Regency age. I was traveling and unable to jump into the discussion, but the comments set me to reflect about my approach—which I had considered for quite a while as I began my historical fiction based on Jane Austen’s life.

As for general language, I take the actor’s approach when preparing to play an historical character: don’t imitate the person, inhabit the person. Learn all you can, absorb the way the individual thinks, feels, and acts, then speak naturally. The voice will come to you. Afterward, with a period piece, check for anachronisms. It’s not unusual for me to check five or six words a page. Trouble is, some old English words sound new, and some new English words sound old. “Ignition,” for example, sounds like a modern word: We relate it to car ignitions, “ignition, liftoff,” and so on. However, this word has been firing up our vocabulary since at least 1612.

The discussion covered a variety of bugaboos, mostly prohibitions that grammarians in the 19th Century tried to force on English to make it more like Latin, to rein in English’s sprawling structure to become more “proper.”

Among these rules, there’s no law against beginning a sentence with “And” or “But” or other conjunctions; however, that usage was not typical of traditional English and it does sound modern. Austen, though, uses an opening conjunction once in a while. Here’s an early example from “Mansfield Park,” when Fanny is trying to settle in: “And sitting down by her, he was at great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprised, and persuade her to speak openly.”

When I begin a sentence with a conjunction, it is usually to express a character’s thoughts, to distinguish a character who speaks abruptly, or to mark the less formal aspect of speech. Austen does the last in the same section in “Mansfield”: “And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”

Austen commonly uses the “semicolon-and”; perhaps fifty for every “period-and.” Why should the former be seen as stately English, connecting two balanced phrases, and the latter as improper?

Split infinitives are another bogus issue. English is an accented language, and sometimes sentences split an infinitive for the rhythm: “To boldly go where no one has gone before” is a “Star Trek” phrase in almost perfect iambic. “To go boldly” or “Boldly to go” strike the English ear as wrong.

The phrase originated in a 1958 White House pamphlet on space travel; it was amended to “where no man has gone before” for the first “Star Trek” television series, then returned to “where no one has gone before” for the revival, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The phrase is also brought out in the split-infinitive debate. I’ve always wondered why the phrase wasn’t “to boldly go where none has gone before,” because that is perfect iambic pentameter. Perhaps the author thought it sounded too lyrical. Or perhaps “none” might have been contradicted by alien species, of which there are aplenty boldly going somewhere in the “Star Trek” saga.

There are other sentences in which the only correct sense requires the infinitive to be split. How else could you construct the following: “Prices are expected to more than double by next year.” The words that split the infinitive are nothing more than modifiers of the main verb; i.e., adverbs.

Split prepositions are also fine. Both Austen and Shakespeare used them. When challenged on his use of sentence-ending prepositions, Winston Churchill is reputed to have responded: “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!” Though there is no definitive source of the remark that traces directly to the British Prime Minister, it sounds like the English bulldog—though he might have thrown in a “bloody” or two. Ending a sentence with a preposition is fine if it gives the sentence a punch. The same is true of keeping the preposition with its object where it technically belongs.

Among the other language issues that arose in the earlier lively discussion, I admit that it bugs me when people don’t know the difference between “farther” and “further,” but Jane Austen didn’t. Neither did Thomas Hardy, who wrote nearly a hundred years later. They both used “further” to mean distance. “Further” has always had the broader sense, but it’s a relatively recent development to separate the two so that “farther” means only “distance” and “further” means everything else. A nice distinction, but new.

Having been a copy editor, I learned and enforced all the rules. I was part of the priesthood. Over many years since, I have become more flexible. I do not believe technicalities should overcome the sense the writer is trying to convey. Some technically correct solutions are so cumbersome they break the spell by taking the reader out of the story. Usually, the best solution is to rewrite the sentence entirely, but that sometimes creates other problems.

I have a good friend and fellow writer who was never very good with spelling and punctuation. He asked me one time if the technical stuff really mattered, since the writer must focus on content. I replied that the rules were part of our box of tools and after twenty or thirty years we should be able to use them. I noticed decided technical improvements in his work after that. These changes, in turn, led to crisper writing. Sharpening his tools paid off.

There are many good style guides, from the plain and simple “AP Style Book” to the dense and complex “Chicago Manual of Style.” Even when the rules seem unintelligible, you can usually find an example that matches the phrase you’re concerned about. E.B. White’s “Elements of Style” is another classic, more about elegant writing than technical style.

One of the problems for American writers with an English audience is the difference between English spelling and punctuation and American spelling and punctuation. Some of the differences, mostly in spelling, evolved over time (“colour” = “color”, “encyclopaedia” = “encyclopedia”). A few developed independently (automobile “boot” = automobile “trunk”).

The main differences, however, happened abruptly and deliberately. Have you ever wondered why American punctuation is the inverse of English? American usage begins with a double quotation mark, and any interior quote is a single quotation mark: “Jones said angrily, ‘I hate quotes within quotes!’ ” English usage is the opposite: ‘Jones said angrily, “I hate quotes within quotes!” ’ Another difference is that in English usage, a noun that has a plural sense takes a plural referent: “The government/they.” In American usage, the same word has a singular sense: “The government/it.”

The reason is purely arbitrary. After the Revolutionary War, American printers wanted protection from the more established and cost-efficient British publishers. In a patriotic and protectionist fervor, Americans established a style just different enough to keep British printers from winning U.S. print contracts. It was the literary equivalent of driving on the other side of the road.

(Originally, most nations used the left side of the road in order to have the (right-handed) sword hand in a protective position against people coming the other way. The U.S. switch to the right side related to Napoleon’s preference for the right, which shifted the continent in that direction, and to the larger freight wagons over here in the U.S., which favored a rider on the left rear horse. This person would have a whip in his right hand for the horses and would want to see oncoming traffic on his left, putting his wagon on the right.)

Back to language. In some cases, the arbitrariness of the grammatical rule frustrates sense.

Consider a mixed group of men and women asked a question, and no one knows the answer. Which should it be:

“Everyone shook his head in confusion.” {grammatically correct but leaves out women}

“Everyone shook her head in confusion.” {grammatically correct but leaves out men}

“Everyone shook their heads in confusion.” {grammatically incorrect but correctly inclusive}

Most “singular/he” constructions can be avoided by changing the noun to plural, something like “people/they.” This is one example of trying to write around the problem. Most grammarians say it is fine to use the “everyone/they” construction in informal usage, but not in formal usage. I would normally use “everyone/he” or “everyone/she” in nonfiction, depending on sense. Nonfiction wants to be rigorous. In the above example, I would use “everyone/they” in fiction. Why? Because in fiction, there’s a different kind of rigor, which is maintaining the spell of the scene. There is no good substitute for the word “everyone” in English. Try recasting the above sentence to “people” and you’ll see what I mean: “People shook their heads in confusion.” What people? Everyone!

Also, rewriting the section might create more awkwardness than it solves; and being the way most of us speak, “everyone/they” is far less intrusive to a reader who, you hope, is caught up in your story. If the only one who objects is a grammar freak, I’m OK with that. I know I would have tried every workaround beforehand.

There’s only one unbreakable grammatical rule: You can’t break a rule unless you fully understand it, know why it exists, and have a good reason to break it.

As an American, I use U.S. spelling and punctuation. I know the obvious differences between U.S. and UK style, but a UK publisher will be far more capable than I of properly dealing with the nuances. English and American readers buy the opposite editions all the time, and neither has any trouble reading the other’s punctuation and spelling style. The best thing is to be proper and consistent with whichever you use.

When writing from an English point of view, however, I avoid Americanisms. In writing about Austen, I have readers versed in both the Regency period and UK English review my work before I publish. I have been corrected in the American use of “fall” for “autumn,” “creek” for “brook,” and a few other such provincialisms. I was embarrassed to learn from an English friend that I used the American “momma” instead of the English “mama” near the end of Volume II of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” my novel on Austen’s life, after having used the correct form earlier. This was a late addition and suffered from the lack of vetting.

A few times, my intrepid early readers caught a few words they thought were anachronisms but were not. One flagged “administratrix” as modern technical, but it goes back to circa 1561. I follow a rule similar to that of Regina Jeffers, another Austen blogger, who will use a word if its documented use comes within ten or twenty years of the time she writes about. The rationale is that a word must have been circulating in speech for a while before it became part of the written lexicon. In my Austen trilogy, the character Ashton Dennis uses the word “stomp” in late 1802. The first known written use of the word was 1803. I decided that Ashton must have been the one to coin it.

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