J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Long List of Rules for the Long S

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. hiscomplainsſucceſs)
  • short s is used before an apostrophe (e.g. clos’dus’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. husbandShaftsbury), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. huſbandShaftſbury) [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. skinask, risk, masked), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. ſkinaſkriſkmaſked) [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-ſtitchCroſs-ſtaff), but very occasionally may be written as a single word, in which case the middle letter s is written short (e.g. Croſsſtitchcroſsſtaff).
  • long s is used initially and medially except for the exceptions noted above (e.g. ſonguſepreſsſubſtitute)
  • long s is used before a hyphen at a line break (e.g. neceſ-ſarypleaſ-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. poſſeſspoſſeſſion), 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-piececroſs-examinationPreſs-workbird’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)
Imagine being a printer’s apprentice trying to keep that all straight! No wonder the character was phased out around 1800.

(Hat tip to John Overholt for tweeting about that Babelstone page.)

4 comments:

Jimmy Dick said...

This is really fascinating. The long s always made it seem like people would have been talking with a lisp in the 18th century. At least that's what I thought when I was a kid at first and then I learned what it was.
I think I will use this for my class to lighten up the load I have for them and so they will understand what it is.

Marshall Stack said...

I don't suppose the long 's' got much use in the words 'suck' and 'sucking'.

:)

John L Smith Jr said...

Marshall Stack's commentary cracks me up and adds some humorous clafs to this subject!

J. L. Bell said...

I did some research on Marshall Stack’s question, which I’ll share in some future posting.