The Britiſh are Leaving: Law and Legislation for the English “S”

Longfellow's famous poem, written in 1861,  never appeared with the long "s"

Longfellow’s famous poem, written in 1861, never appeared with the long “s”

On Wednesday we looked at a few extinct English letters. During that discussion you may have thought about the long s, resembling an “f” without the crossbar, frequently used in 18th century texts. You have probably noticed that ſ is used mostly at the beginning and middle of words, but seemingly never at the ends. As it turns out, there is a whole structure of rules governing the use of “s”-sounds in English.

The BabelStone blog took a long hard look at this issue, starting with codified rules for English:

  • The long ſ muſt never be uſed at the End of a Word, nor immediately after the short s. (Thomas Dyche’s A Guide to the English Tongue, 1785)
  • A long ſ muſt never be placed at the end of a word, as maintainſ, nor a ſhort s in the middle of a word, as conspires. (Nathan Bailey’s An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1756)
  • All the ſmall Conſonants retain their form, the long ſ and the ſhort s only excepted. The former is for the moſt part made uſe of at the beginning, and in the middle of words ; and the laſt only at their terminations. (James Barclay’s A Complete and Universal English Dictionary, 1792)

Readers of this blog are aware that codified rules do not always match common usage. This is the difference between legislation and law, at the root of our understanding of micro-institutions. So how were s and ſ used in common practice? BabelStone took a look at this too, using a Google Books search and summarizing the empirical results. Here are the rules for English-speaking countries:

  • 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. ſatisfactionmisfortunetransfuſetransfixtransferſucceſsful)
  • 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. 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,askriskmasked), 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)

When did ſ drop out of common usage? According to Google N-grams, there was a sharp decline in its popularity around the turn of the 19th century. I wonder whether new printing technologies or textbooks had anything to do with this.

Ngram_those