Rules for Writing: Learning to Spell in Jane Austen’s Era

Although I appreciate “a fine disregard for convention” in writers from the period, for my own project of learning to write like an accomplished young lady I feel the need for some guidance. The rules for writing in Jane Austen’s era were not as strict or uniform as they are in ours, but there were conventions (even if they shifted over time) and there were authoritative books to guide the learner. This week I’ll be looking at some of the aspects that puzzle modern readers most:  the long s, capital letters, and today, spelling.


The Polite Lady, one of my guides to polite education, advises to learn spelling along with handwriting. In a letter exhorting her daughter to practice writing carefully, the mother says,

I have sent you Entick’s dictionary, to assist you in spelling: for, before you put pen to paper, you must resolve not to indulge yourself in the wrong spelling of a single word : and if you faithfully observe this rule for a short time, you will soon be able to spell any word without the help of a dictionary. Nothing indeed is more unworthy the character of a gentlewoman, than false spelling : and yet, in this respect, I am sorry to say it, most of our sex are shamefully guilty ; and some of them too, whom I know to be persons of excellent good sense and distinguished abilities : but this must have been owing to bad habits contracted in their youth, of which they were never afterwards able to get the better. It is therefore your part to prevent, what it is so extremely difficult to correct.

Title Page of Entick’s Dictionary, 1791 London edition. (Source)

Many parents and students must have been of this opinion, for Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary went through several editions in both Britain and the American colonies after its debut in 1764. Many other dictionaries also rubbed shoulders with it. I have a particular fondness for browsing dictionaries of all kinds, and the various editions of Entick’s dictionary that are available on Google Books are no exception.  I love seeing earlier definitions of words (chocolate: A nice liquor made of the cocoa-nut) and learning new ones (Shoulderclapper: one who affects a familiarity).

As you can see on the title page, Entick’s Dictionary advertises its usefulness for both writing and pronouncing correctly.  In so many of the educational texts of this period, reading aloud is an essential accomplishment just like writing is, and pronouncing badly is just as grave a faux pas as spelling badly. 2015-04-19 14-21-42
Detail from page 343 of the 1791 edition of Entick’s Dictionary. (Source)

Because the focus is on spelling, Entick’s definitions are sparse- they usually consist of one short line. Many words and definitions are crammed onto the small pages, presumably to make it easier to find the word you want to spell- after all, if you don’t know how to spell it, how are you supposed to find it in an alphabetical list? In Entick’s dictionary, if you have some notion of what the first letters are you’ll be likely to come across the word you’re looking for within a page.

Detail of a table of homophones, page xxvii of Entick’s Dictionary (1791 ed.) (Source)

Perhaps that same difficulty led to the 1791 London edition including a list of homophones- words that sound the same but mean something different, and are often spelled differently as well. These lists suggest that a persistent problem for learners is the tendency to spell phonetically, or to transfer one known spelling to a similar-sounding word.


Examining these dictionaries, it becomes clear that while there is an ideal of good spelling, variations are more acceptable to Jane Austen’s contemporaries than to spelling sticklers of today. The 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary gives two different correct spellings for many words, including “choose,” “scissors,”  and “show.” Jane Austen often preferred the alternate spellings “chuse,” “scissars,” and “shew.”   Conventions evolved in English-speaking countries over the course of the 19th century, and multiple spellings fell by the wayside as dictionaries became more prescriptive and intolerant of variation. In some cases, UK/Commonwealth English adopted one alternative and US English the other, as in the case of “grey”/”gray.” The London 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary accepts both, but today the ‘correct’ spelling is “gray” in the US and “grey” in the UK and the Commonwealth.

Now that I’ve spent some time with spelling, I’m going to turn next time to a particularly baffling feature of 18th and 19th century writing- the long s.


One thought on “Rules for Writing: Learning to Spell in Jane Austen’s Era

  1. I enjoyed this interesting post. I was a teacher, I love Austen, and I really enjoy the British Acting but sometimes hear words said differently.


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