Rules of the Road for the Regency Language

Rules of the Road for the Regency Language

Summer Hanford recently blogged on Austen Authors about language, particularly for writers working in the Regency period. I was traveling and unable to jump into the discussion, but her 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 blog 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, 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 Authors 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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17 Responses to Rules of the Road for the Regency Language

  1. I spent many years teaching grammar and composition to teens, and I am enough of a nerd about it to admit that I love to diagram sentences. And I don’t mind spending time parsing a sentence mentally. However, that being said, do I always remember the proper placement of commas or use the correct past tense of lay or lie? Nope. Just ask my editor. I am constantly kicking myself over mistakes I should not have made. This background in grammar and writing mechanics is both a blessing and a tribulation to me. I find that I do my best writing when i get out of my critical/analytical brain and relax into my creative brain. Then the words can flow freely — which is what we want as writers. We don’t want people to have to stumble over reading our content — fluency and rhythm, rise and fall of emotion,the painting of a scene with words where the mind’s eye follows the scene are important to me. I would often, as a teacher, pick up a piece of less than great writing and read it aloud and ask how it sounds. Then I would put in the subordinate conjunctions or whatever the current topic was and rearrange the sentences before reading it aloud again. I loved the way I would see student’s eyes light up as they heard the difference. There is a music to writing. It is more than technicalities, but it is the technicalities that keep it from being chaotic noise.

    • Leenie, you are so right about the difference between the creative mindset and the editing mindset. I’ve struggled many times to get into the flow of writing because my mind is in “edit” mode. Now, I revise and edit continually as I go, but it has to be instinctive, part of the generation process. Not the thoughtful, sharp-eyed approach of an editor. Editing is a tightening, focusing activity. Creativity is an expansive, developing activity. If you get into edit mode too soon, you suffocate the creative side. I love your concluding sentence: “There is a music to writing. It is more than technicalities, but it is the technicalities that keep it from being chaotic noise.” Well said!

  2. Collins, thank you for this interesting post! I so appreciate authors that are true to their time periods. 🙂

  3. And now we know why only read and do not write. Apparently it’s more work than just writing down the ideas which pop into my head. Thanks for the lesson!

  4. You make so many great points.

    Churchill has wonderful quotes, don’t he? My favorite is: “I would be obliged if you would pin this on your white meat.” It requires some explanation if you aren’t familiar with the story behind it, but I won’t go into it here.

    I’m a firm believer, for my fiction work, that the ultimate consideration is the reader’s experience. My goal is a seamless one (not that I’m claiming to succeed 🙂 ) However, I also agree that it’s best to know as many of the rules as you can. As I’ve likely said before, to me it’s the same as painting. Once you have the skill to paint realistically, you can then become an abstract painter, because you know the abstract things you paint are what you meant to paint. You have the technical skill to create whatever you like, so your three lines on a blank field are the perfect and most meaningful three lines. With grammar, you should at least know the choices you’re making.

    I’m not great grammarian. I do my best and I’m always learning. I’m also not the best at avoiding ‘Americanisms,’ but I’m okay with that. I do my best with that, too, and with not using words that are too modern. Ultimately, it’s always a balancing act: Reader experience, correctness by various standards, and expressing yourself, and I’ve definitely been known to rework a whole sentence, or even a paragraph, to avoid phrasing I know is correct, but that’s too awkward to live with.

    • Summer, yes, I’m familiar with the “white meat” story, though I hadn’t heard it attributed to Churchill. There seem to be many attributed to him. They are usually clever, wise, aggressive, and saucy.

    • Summer, I inadvertently hit “send” before I finished. … I agree absolutely that all that matters in the end is the reader’s experience. One should create a world that draws in the reader and is consistent with itself. That’s why I don’t try to directly mimic Austen’s educated style or the colloquial language of the working folk. It would be like my writing a novel in French. … It would sound false, embarrassingly so. I try to pick up elements of the period but also keep the language accessible to a modern reader. Your point about painting is a good one: You can only go abstract after you master traditional. Someone asked an American poet why he was so good at free verse. He said, “It’s all those years of writing sonnets.”

  5. Thanks for such an informative post. Language use is an absolutely fascinating subject and has become more so over the past couple of years for me, since I started undertaking some beta work for some of our lovely US JAFF authors. The differences that have arisen in the usage of our common language are amazing and surprising. The very first book I proofed for a US author used the word “stoop” for a part of the front of a house. As a Brit, I wasn’t sure what this was. I not only discovered that it was a flight of steps leading up to the front door of a house, but that it had been imported directly into US English by Dutch settlers, thus bypassing UK English completely. Then there’s the “sidewalk”, which we call the “pavement” and measuring street distances in “blocks”. Both are totally logical but something we never use. British towns and cities are, in the main, rather old and very few are laid out in a grid pattern to any great extent, so “blocks” as a measure of distance simply don’t work!

    • Anji, I didn’t know “stoop” was Dutch, but it makes sense. Remember that New York was originally New Amsterdam, and there are many Dutch influences in the Northeast.

      On my last trip to England, I asked for directions in Alton, which as you likely know is just up the hill from Chawton. The fellow, recognizing my accent, said something like, “Go about a three hundred meters and turn right. I don’t know how many blocks that is!”

      • One of the things I remember from a holiday we spent in the US in 2008 was how distances are designated on road signs on the main roads. We were driving from the airport in Bozeman, Montana to Yellowstone National Park and it was the first time we’d driven in the US. Longer distances were always expressed in miles – so far, so much the same as at home. Then we realised that shorter distances (such as for the next exit or turn off) were being expressed in feet, whereas we’re used to yards, or 1/2 mile or 1/4 mile etc. Then our jet-lagged brains had to start doing mental arithmetic!

        I love that story from Alton! I haven’t spent much time there, compared with Chawton, but the two are quite close together, and from what I’ve read, Jane Austen used to walk there or travel by donkey cart quite regularly.

        • Anji, we stayed at an Airbnb just off “Mounter’s Lane,” the one mentioned in Jane’s letters, and took the path to and from Chawton every day. It was eerie to know that Austen had walked and ridden that path herself. …

  6. Interesting post, Collins. When it comes to writing Regency fiction, I have to be careful because I have a tendency to write like I talk whether fiction or non-fiction. And I am not a strict grammarian. Most of my readers are not either, and they enjoy my books without getting tangled up in the rules. I agree that we need to know the rules before we can break them. And I do break them at times. Occasionally, I will use present tense to put my reader directly in the scene, and I appreciate that publishers are beginning to accept that if used reasonably and sparingly. Otherwise, I do use past tense. Past perfect tense does have a tendency to drive me wild as it doesn’t compute. I’m very ADD and that tense rarely registers. So, I am very grateful that I have a Regency editor who’s very good about catching when I mess up. I do use American spelling and punctuation about 99%. However, there are a few words that I use UK spelling such as grey instead of gray or gaol instead of jail. And you found what I did also in regard to anachronisms. There are times I’ve been shocked at a word that I thought was 20th century, and it turned out to be Middle English or visa versa. And I use the same rule Regina does about anachronisms as well.

    I will say this, I’ve learned a lot about writing since doing my first book so my writing has improved. And I will keep learning the rules, but occasionally I will break them. 🙂

    Thank you for a very informative post, Collins. Look forward to your next one.

    • Gianna, a number of modern writers use present tense throughout a book for the immediacy. A few will break into it and out of it for special effects. It wasn’t used in traditional lit, but whether it works or not for someone writing in the period will depend on the writer’s skill. Past perfect can be difficult to manage at times, I agree. Going back and forth from past to past perfect to past can tangle up a writer. Usually you can fix the problem by setting the work aside and coming back to it fresh. Usually you’ll find a way to simplify the time sequence, which will eliminate most of the past perfect. I too have slipped the English spelling in for effect, using “draught” for “draft” in one key scene, along w/a couple of others.

      • Thanks, Collins. Yes, my manuscripts get set aside frequently until I work out scenes and wording in my head. And it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one breaking the rules. 🙂

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