Rules for Writing: Long and Short S in Jane Austen’s Era

If you’ve spent any time with 18th century literature as it was printed in the period, you’ve probably stumbled over the “long s” or ſ. In some typefaces, it looks so much like a lower case f that when I read it my mental voice sounds like it’s lisping. One reason the long s can be puzzling is that there are two rules in effect during this period, one for handwriting and one for printing.

Long S in Print

In printed books during most of the 18th century, ſ appears at the beginning and middle of words, while the now-familiar ‘short’ or ’round’ s only appears at the end of words. The Complete Letter-writer of 1778 expresses this rule slightly vaguely as:

CLW1778
Detail of page 22 of The Complete Letter Writer, 1778 edition (Source)

The 1798 edition of The Polite Lady displays this use of long and short s, as you can see in the image below. The long s appears in the middle of words like “blush,” “modesty,” and “pleasing,” and at the beginnings of words like “smile” and “so.” The short s only appears at the end of words like “virtues” and “perhaps.”  The word “possessed” has two sets of double long s, but when the double s ends the word, like “confess”, the first s is long and the last s is short.

PoliteLadyP163
Detail of page 163 of The Polite Lady, 1798 edition. (Source)

But that edition of The Polite Lady was behind the times- the long s was already going out of fashion. Some London printers in the 1790s were already using new typefaces that lacked the long s, and by the early years of the 19th century it was disappearing rapidly.

Long S in Handwriting

However, handwriting from the 18th and early 19th century follows a slightly different rule, as do engraved plates that imitate master penman’s writings (like those in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant).  In writing, the long s is only used as the first letter of a double s, at any point in the word.  The following image is from George Bickham’s Moral Maxims in Roundhand. Wherever there is a double s, it is composed of a long and a short s (happiness, blessing).  Every other lower case s, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, is a short s (choicest, modest, is, finds).

Detail from plate 18 of The Young Clerk’s Assistant. (Source)

To see these rules in real handwriting, I turned to Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts, which are all viewable online in a “digital edition.” Here’s a short passage from Austen’s 1813 “Plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters,”  now in the Morgan Library.

JAPlanNovel
Detail from page 1 of Jane Austen’s “Plan of a Novel” (Source)

This snippet reads “The Heroine a faultleſs Character herself —, perfectly good, with much tenderneſs & sentiment, & not the least  Wit-”  Austen uses the short s at the beginning of “sentiment” and in the middle of “least,” and only uses the long s in the double s of “faultless” and “tenderness.”   I find the written long s much less confusing and f-like than the printed version.  And when I practice my English Roundhand writing, I relish a double s!  It’s very satisfying how the swooping loops of the long s resolve into the compact curl of the little s.

Learning these rules has helped me parse 18th century sources more easily, and I hope they will help you too. However, I still  have to concentrate very hard to keep my mental voice from saying “f” when I see “ſ”!

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7 thoughts on “Rules for Writing: Long and Short S in Jane Austen’s Era

  1. Very interesting article! In the German Kurrent handwriting we’ve had three different kinds of using the ‘s’, too, and we still have the ‘long s’ today…the history of writing is amazinly interesting and it’s fascinating to explore the personal handwriting of our ancestors.

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    1. Thank you! Once you start looking at the history of writing, it’s amazing how much history remains in our contemporary practices, even if we’ve dropped so many other customs.
      I must confess I’m a little afraid of handwriting outside of the Anglophone world from this period – what little I’ve seen looks so different from the English and American styles!

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    1. Thank you! Why was the long s used until about 1800? The answer goes back deep into the history of the Roman alphabet, to the cursive handwriting developed in the Imperial era of Ancient Rome (and far beyond of the scope of this blog). English handwriting and typefounding of the 15th century and later were influenced by Italian letterforms that also used the Roman long s (and ligatures between s and other letters). I linked to one Babelstone article about how long s was used, but there is another about the details of its origins and history here.
      Why the long s stopped being used after so many centuries is less clear. It seems to have had a lot to do with fashion- typefaces without the long s and ligatures looked fresh and ‘modern’ to readers around 1800. Doing away with variant letters and ligatures may also have sped up the type-setting process in an age when the industrial revolution was innovating in every industry, including print.

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