I’ve occasionally thought about writing a post on the “long s” of eighteenth-century (and earlier) typography. That’s the lowercase character ſ (or ſ when italicized). To unfamiliar eyes, it looks so like an f that many people, and O.C.R. programs, think people actually spelled with extra fs and try to transcribe words that way.
Andrew West at Babelstone has created a comprehensive guide to the use of the long s, not just in English over time but also in other European languages. Furthermore, in some periods English printers also followed exceptional rules for ſ based on what letters it came before or after.
Here are West’s simple rules for English:
- short s is used at the end of a word (e.g. his, complains, ſucceſs)
- short s is used before an apostrophe (e.g. clos’d, us’d)
- short s is used before the letter f (e.g. ſatisfaction, misfortune, transfuſe, transfix, transfer, ſucceſsful)
- short s is used after the letter f (e.g. offset), although not if the word is hyphenated (e.g. off-ſet) [see Short S before and after F for details]
- short s is used before the letter b in books published during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century (e.g. husband, Shaftsbury), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. huſband, Shaftſbury) [see Short S before B and K for details]
- short s is used before the letter k in books published during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century (e.g. skin, ask, risk, masked), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. ſkin, aſk, riſk, maſked) [see Short S before B and K for details]
- Compound words with the first element ending in double s and the second element beginning with s are normally and correctly written with a dividing hyphen (e.g. Croſs-ſtitch, Croſs-ſtaff), but very occasionally may be written as a single word, in which case the middle letter s is written short (e.g. Croſsſtitch, croſsſtaff).
- long s is used initially and medially except for the exceptions noted above (e.g. ſong, uſe, preſs, ſubſtitute)
- long s is used before a hyphen at a line break (e.g. neceſ-ſary, pleaſ-ed), even when it would normally be a short s (e.g. Shaftſ-bury and huſ-band in a book where Shaftsbury and husband are normal), although exceptions do occur (e.g. Mans-field)
- double s is normally written as double long s medially and as long s followed by short s finally (e.g. poſſeſs, poſſeſſion), although in some late 18th and early 19th century books a different rule is applied, reflecting contemporary usage in handwriting, in which long s is used exclusively before short s medially and finally [see Rules for Long S in some late 18th and early 19th century books for details]
- short s is used before a hyphen in compound words with the first element ending in the letter s (e.g. croſs-piece, croſs-examination, Preſs-work, bird’s-neſt)
- long s is maintained in abbreviations such as ſ. for ſubſtantive, and Geneſ. for Geneſis (this rule means that it is practically impossible to implement fully correct automatic contextual substitution of long s at the font level)
(Hat tip to John Overholt for tweeting about that Babelstone page.)