Weird Victorian mechanics: Ca’n’t, wo’n’t, and more

Yes, I’m speaking of the mechanics of punctuation.

In reading Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Beer, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016), I’ve been sidetracked by the appearance of apostrophes where I’m unused to finding them. I’ve put them right up there in the title; that’s how distracting they are. They deserve greater notice.

And explanation.

But in my research into this oddity—and to be sure, it is an oddity, even for Carroll’s contemporaries—I’ve found an amazing blog post from 2007 by Gabe Doyle, then a doctoral candidate at Stanford, to which I link below. There’s little point in my regurgitation of its contents when it’s perfectly simple to link to it, and let you all read at your leisure (or ignore it entirely, if you choose).

Also note that although he makes no mention of “ca’n’t” in his post, it appears in Carroll’s works and thus in the text I’m reading currently. This curious use of apostrophes is apparently related to the logic of using one where a letter is omitted, rather than letting it stand in for more than one as we do with “can’t.” That, at least, is the short form of the explanation. And such logic is logical, coming from a mathematician like Dodgson/Carroll.

And what’s up with “won’t,” anyway? Where’s the O come from, if it’s short for “will not?”

Find the answer to that and much more at the link below.

Will you, wo’n’t you, will you, wo’n’t you, will you click the link? (with apologies to the Mock Turtle)

Honor the writer’s voice

Editors are told to “honor the writer’s voice.” But what does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that we leave their errors in place; that would be shirking our responsibility as editors. I would hope that’s obvious, but I’ve learned that what I think is obvious is often anything but to others.

To honor the writer’s voice, we have to get a feel for their style. Do they use contractions, or do they write everything out fully? Do they like long sentences or short ones, in general? What about their word choices? Do they lean toward simpler words or fancier ones?

Maybe they use contractions in dialogue but never in narrative. It is not my job, as editor, to change all the contractions in their dialogue to fully written-out wording. Nor is it my job to contract everything that can be contracted in their narrative. My job is to see and hear how they write, and then ensure consistency within that framework.

What if one character’s dialogue uses contractions, but only that one? Chances are very high that it’s a choice on the writer’s part, as one method of characterization. The same goes for the character who speaks in flowery phrases. “I don’t hear X saying this” is a frequent comment I leave in the margins, when something sounds off to me.

We are the polishers of prose. The writer chisels form from a block of an idea; we come along afterward and sand off the roughness, adding a highlight here or there, chipping off a stray protuberance, making that work shine.

Honor the writer’s voice. Hear them, and make your suggestions in harmony with their words.