When Standard eBooks first gained widespread attention last week, a number of people complained about that project's stated intention to alter the ebooks it created by changing the punctuation and modernizing the spelling.
A Standard eBooks explained on its site:
Older books often contain archaic spelling and hyphenation that can be distracting for today’s readers. On top of our strict typography standards, each Standard Ebook is lightly modernized to feature consistent and modern spelling and hyphenation, so old-fashioned ephemera doesn’t distract you from timeless content.
That might not bother most readers, but not everyone is happy with th changes. For example:
Noooooo!! Half the joy of older books is the spelling, grammar and punctuation!
— Suw (@Suw) June 20, 2017
Also, the argument that “old-fashioned ephemera” would distract from timeless content – content that’s no longer timeless.
— Craig Grannell (@CraigGrannell) June 20, 2017
They do have a point, and it's not just a fetish for originalism.
One problem with "modernization" is that the editor might conflate two words that merely have similar spellings, but even if the editor is aware of a word's etymological history they might still introduce errors.
The meaning of a word can change along with its spelling. For example, if an editor tried to replace wyrd with the more modern spelling of weird, they would radically change the meaning of the text by replacing a synonym of the word chance with one that means strange.
Furthermore, even if you leave the words alone, simply changing the punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. There are obsolete forms of punctuation which do not quite have the same meaning as modern marks.
As Keith Houston explained in his book, Shady Characters, it used to be standard practice to pair a dash with a comma, period, or other mark for greater emphasis.
... in the 1622 edition of Shakespeare’s Othello, where the comma, colon, semicolon, and even the period collude with the em dash to add weight to otherwise standard pauses and semantic markers. In the second act, for instance, Iago declares: “I’ll tell you what you shall do, — our general’s wife is now the general”; act III sees Desdemona reassure Cassio: “O that’s an honest fellow: — do not doubt, Cassio,” and in the climactic finale Othello spits, “O strumpet, — weepest thou for him to my face?”
The comma-dash, or “commash” (,—), and its companions the “colash” (:—) and “semi-colash” (;—)* grew in status until they were almost ubiquitous, and the words of Captain Ahab, Fagin, and Elizabeth Bennet were liberally seasoned with such “dashtards,” as Baker called them. Given its comparative rarity, Baker understandably declined to acknowledge the stop-dash (.—); even in an era when the printed page fairly danced with extraneous commas, when dashes coupled promiscuously with other marks and “ quotations ” came with built-in safety margins, the contradiction inherent in such a pairing was too rich for the average writer.
You will find those compound punctuation marks in the Project Gutenberg copy of Moby Dick, but you will not find them in the PG's copy of Othello or some other works of Shakespeare (I did find them in parts of the omnibus collected works, however.).
Update: Project Gutenberg doesn't have a consistent policy on modernization:
interesting discussion here - preserve original, archaic punctuation or make the text "more readable"... at PG depends on actual transcriber https://t.co/BoFpAu4svX
— Project Gutenberg (@gutenberg_org) June 29, 2017
When present, the compound marks add emphasis, but you might not find them in all of an author's work. Which one is authentic? Were the compound marks inserted by an earlier editor, or removed?
that raises a whole new question when it comes to modernizing a text.
Both Keith Houston and the Project Gutenberg editor cite authentic and original copies of Shakespeare's work and say they found different punctuation.
Which one is correct?
And more importantly, should we care?
Given that these ebooks are not produced by or for academics, one could reasonably argue that this level of attention to detail is not worth the effort. Standard eBooks is just trying to produce ebooks for people to read, not works that will last for posterity.
But if you accept that argument then it would follow that one need not keep the original spelling.
image by Matt Hampel