In Defense of Jane Austen's Punctuation

Call Jane Austen's prose "freakish," and you will be, um, denounced heartily,

Well, after all, Austenites are a largely well-behaved bunch, but really, the unwarranted attack on her grammar had us in an uproar. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, some professorial wench went through Austen's drafts and concluded the author savaged the English language in a "powerful counter-grammatical way of writing" and that some Man rescued her wounded language.

Nonsense, declares another man, one Geoffrey Nunberg. The UC Berkeley linguist professor bristled on "Fresh Air" to make several salient points. (And Nunberg is indeed one to speak, as this professorial wench, Kathryn Sutherland, used his book to do some analysis.)

  • All the drafts studied were drafts and "we don't have so much as a page of the manuscripts of her novels that she submitted to her publishers." Affrontery! Would you judge an author's prose by his Tweets?
  • Other writers like Lord Byron and Thomas Jefferson committed the same degree of misspellings and punctuation.
  • All the nitpicking about punctuation? Turns out punctuation as we know it is a modern invention, and during Austen's time, it was in "flux."
Fascinating, yes? And, as Nunberg points out, "What's remarkable about Austen is the way that artistry shows up even in those ragged manuscripts." What a Darcy-like observation.