Skip to main content

On Standard eBooks' "Light Modernization"

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:


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:

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

Similar Articles


Alex Cabal June 28, 2017 um 3:44 pm

Hi Nate! Alex from Standard Ebooks here. I’d like to clarify a few things, if I may.

First of all, we don’t do "bowdlerization" at all, as you suggest. I’d like to get that out of the way before anyone else gets the wrong idea.

The modernization we do is probably the only source of complaint most people have. But I think people are getting the wrong idea about what it exactly is we do. (Since you mentioned "bowdlerization", it sounds like you did too!) Our modernizations are almost entirely automated one-to-one spelling modernizations and standardizations. Things like "develope" -> "develop" and "to-night" -> "tonight". We emphatically *do not* try to make editorial decisions on modernizing vernacular, or bowdlerization, or anything like that. We’re talking automated, unambiguous improvements to mostly spelling.

Since you mentioned it, we do replace the comma–em-dash construct with a single em-dash (but not other punctuation–em-dash constructs, like colon–em-dash), as that specific one was quickly and almost totally replaced by just a single em-dash even in much older texts. Not only did that specific construct not survive for very long compared to other constructs, but today it makes little sense to modern readers who already recognize an em-dash as a long pause. So that’s the rationale there.

The truth is that the books all of us have been reading have *already* been heavily edited and modernized over the hundreds of years that they’ve been reprinted. For example, if you refuse to read a lightly modernized version of Shakespeare, then you should then demand publishers in 2017 print this:

> O no, it is an euer fixed marke
> That lookes on tempe?ts and is neuer ?haken;
> It is the ?tar to euery wandring barke
> Who?e worths vnknowne, although his higth be taken…

Because that’s what was in the 1609 printing of sonnet 116. You can even see a screencap here:

Back in the day each editor of an edition took significant liberties in what they printed, and even the printers, who had to hand-set text for printing, took their own liberties. The concept of "author’s intent" barely existed in those days, and even less so for the novels and poetry that were the pulp reading of their time.

For example, Jane Austen, an author that many hold as sacred canon of the English language, actually went through a huge number of wildly varying editions, even after her death. Her spelling was notoriously terrible and had to be corrected repeatedly. Her original printings had a pathological overuse of commas that were removed or modified by various editors over time. If you picked up the 2017 Signet Classics edition of "Pride and Prejudice", you’d find that it varies significantly from an edition from 1850. And you don’t have to take my word for it–you can verify yourself by finding page scans at Google Books or Hathi Trust.

Samuel Johnson is another great example, a classic of the language. His "Rasselas" was hugely popular in its day and went through a large number of editions. Some old editions cram each chapter into a single massive paragraph. Other editions from the same time period break up the blocks of text into a more readable flow, but each edition breaks them at different points. Which one is "correct"? Can there be a "correct" edition? Does it even matter?

Austen and Johnson aren’t sole outliers. This was extremely common across the spectrum of authors, regardless of their "literary merit" to their contemporaries or today’s modern audience.

So, our light modernization is very much akin to the kind of modernization that has already been happening to the books you’re reading for centuries, without you even realizing it. In fact, I think that if we didn’t mention our modernization at all, nobody would have even noticed! 🙂

We do on rare occasion make significant editorial decisions like removing overused commas. In those cases we make a note in the book’s description, and roll up all of those changes into a single commit in source control prefaced with [Editorial] so that readers who don’t like them can roll them back. We did this for P&P, in no small part because there’s already such huge historical precedent going back hundreds of years for doing the exact same thing.

Lastly, our changes in no way diminish anyone’s ability to access the faithful transcriptions and page scans elsewhere. If a truly 100% authentic historical experience is what you’re looking for, there’s plenty of options: you can go to your local library, or find page scans online, or visit Project Gutenberg or Wikisource. It’s out there for you to enjoy.

Our productions are meant to be as widely accessible and enjoyable for modern readers as possible, so that they can benefit from this great literature without feeling like they’re reading some out-of-touch, ancient moldering tome.

Barry Marks June 28, 2017 um 3:51 pm

I think this is debate with two valid sides. I had read the discussion on Mobileread’s forum and I’d read the blurb on Standard Ebooks about their plans and I didn’t really think much of it one way or the other. But the example you pointed out with the ,– does make me wonder if they’ve gone too far.

I don’t think that could affect readability for the modern reader in the least bit. It is different and unusual and it might draw attention from the text the first time or two it’s encountered, but that’s a good thing. Strange and unexpected differences do require some thought. Beyond that I don’t see any distraction at all.

I don’t think I can really object to their having done this but I don’t like the idea of making changes without a good reason and that seems to be what they’re doing. If they made changes to text that was difficult to read that would be different.


Harvey June 29, 2017 um 7:10 am

Punctuation is not meant to be noticed. Its sole purpose is to direct, subliminally, the reading of the work. If it does "draw attention from the text," how is that possibly a good thing? Reader thought and any ensuing conversation should be about the story, not the punctuation (or capitalization or odd spellings, etc.) That’s like casual observers standing around a beautiful mansion and commenting on the type of nails the carpenter used.

Words and punctuation are tools, nothing more.

As to punctuation, the comma forces a short pause, the semicolon and em-dash force a medium-length pause, and the colon and other end punctuation force a long pause. Yes, I mean "forces." Ever try to read through a mark of punctuation? Hence the em-dash follows a list that introduces a sentence and the colon follows a sentence that introduces a list.

Any gratuitous, unnecessary use of em dashes or any other punctuation, and any combination of marks (other than the interrobang) is distracting and annoying to most readers. They’ll put the book aside and find something more enjoyable to do, like poking their eyes with a stick. And they won’t even know why they’re annoyed.

I applaud Standard Ebooks' efforts.

Will Entrekin June 28, 2017 um 5:52 pm

You know, it’s funny you bring up Shakespeare, considering he never actually spelled his name that way and our usage of it is simply a standard we’ve agreed to use consistently.

I’m the first critic of altering texts to make them more amenable. Like when groups try to make "clean" edits of books or movies by removing profanity or other elements some might call "obscene."

But back in college I read The Canterbury Tales as Chaucer wrote it, spelling and all, and that isn’t an experience I’d care to replicate — I couldn’t understand a word of it unless I read it aloud to myself.

Reading over Cabal’s comment above, it sounds like it really is an effort toward grammatical consistency in line with contemporary usage — and not altering the texts just to make them more accessible.

Alex Cabal June 28, 2017 um 7:25 pm

Actually there was little consistency with how he spelled his name. It was such a controversy in the past that there’s even a Wikipedia article about it:

If the guy couldn’t even spell his own name, then I’m OK with standardizing it to what we’ve consider the widely-accepted modern equivalent since the 1860s 😉

Will Entrekin June 28, 2017 um 7:45 pm

Yeah, that’s actually what I was driving at. There are six different on-record spellings and none of them are actually "Shakespeare."

Like I said, in light of your comment above, I’m so far on board with what you’re doing. I tend to read contemporary indie fiction, but will definitely be checking out what’s available on Standard.

Will Entrekin June 28, 2017 um 7:48 pm

I should also note when I said "It’s funny you bring up Shakespeare," I meant Nate, not you, Alex. I didn’t have anything to add to your comment, Alex, and so far I think what you and Standard are doing is very cool.

Nate Hoffelder June 28, 2017 um 10:44 pm

I wish I had known about the name – like Alex’s example of Jane Austen, the spelling of Shakespeare’s name makes a great argument against the originalists.

Randy Lea June 28, 2017 um 11:38 pm

If all books must be in the original form, doesn’t that rule out translations to other languages?

On the other hand, many classic books are only available in modified form, the original is no longer around. I have no problem with modernization, but we should keep the original text available. Why not provide both in a nice ebook format, let the reader choose.

Martin Lake June 29, 2017 um 3:55 am

Another dimension to the argument is the type of English is going to be used. I’m a British author and Lake Union, my American publisher, changes my spellings to suit an American audience. However, if I think it’s important, they’re happy to allow me to keep my original use of words, even when this may be unusual for American readers. It’s not a blanket solution, more a collaboration.

Will Entrekin June 29, 2017 um 8:19 am

This is a great point. As a publisher I work with authors whose English isn’t American. One in particular, Nick Earls, is an extremely popular Australian author.

At first I took a heavy hand, changing things like "bitumen" to "asphalt" and things like that. But with one of his books, "Green," we decided to do an Unabridged Australian Edition (or Ultimate Author Edition, take your pick), and he wrote a special note about how his novels had been Americanized previously. Now I try hard to preserve the original text except where I think a word might not be understood by American (or international) audiences.

But spelling — spelling standards, like grammar and the dictionary, are descriptive, not prescriptive. They evolve over time, based on usage, not vice versa.

Richard Hollick June 29, 2017 um 12:34 pm

I think all we should want is to encourage reading. If you are someone who really wants to read the genuine unaltered original, fine: that’s what you should read. But surely being such a person doesn’t give you the right to police everyone else’s reading and demand that they also get original spelling etc. If any reader feels the need for modernized spelling, fine. As long as the text makes it clear that spelling and punctuation have been updated, surely there’s no problem here.

Mark Seattle June 29, 2017 um 1:36 pm

In all cases keep the punctuation intended by the author. For reasons of clarity make corrections. If possisble, add a clickable note about the clarification.

Some errors that make their way into a printed book become a welcome part of that book, or they at least make that edition unique. It’s sort of like a patina on bronze. Collectors appreciate an ancient bronze because the patina, which is the result of corrosion.

Books are artifacts of our culture. Modernization of classic texts is a gret idea if it will attract more readers. Ebooks are a great tool in these cases. They provide easy access to readers and can provide links to orignal, unmodernized versions of the book.

One caveat, the modernized edition may become the sine qua non and we may forget the original form. It’s a familiar trope in science fiction. What do we lose when we lose our cultural memory? It makes the false real.

It’s that possibility that makes me an anxious lover of ebooks, their promise and their peril.

Marilynn Byerly June 29, 2017 um 1:55 pm

Years ago, classic movie copyright owners like Ted Turner, decided that they should colorize black and white films so they’d be more attractive to modern audiences. Lots of fans freaked out, rightly so, because the art of black and white with its shadows and light would lose its magic.

During this time, I watched a Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) movie that had been colorized. It was THE WOMAN IN GREEN. But the woman in green wore a purple dress because Holmes made a comment that the woman was in the purple which means she was pretending to a nobility of blood she didn’t have. The clueless colorists made her dress purple.

Nuances would be lost with modernization. So, not just no, but hell no.

Barry Marks June 29, 2017 um 4:18 pm

I think a lot of the comments in this discussion are perfectly valid but kind of miss the point. We don’t have a "proper" spelling for Shakespeare’s name but we do know the words he wrote. Call him whatever you like but I don’t want his writing modernized any more than completely necessary to enable me to read it. I do want to be able to read it, though.

The copy if "The Canterbury Tales" I read in Middle English were accompanied with a very good and detailed glossary and that enabled me to read and understand it. It wasn’t easy but it was possible and I did it and it was well worth the effort.

If the next guy wants a modern translation I have no problem with that. I’ve re-read a couple of the stories in modern translation and heard a couple of them made into audiodrama and I’ve enjoyed both. I’m sure glad I got the original first.

By the way, reading that in Middle English probably taught me more about the English language than anything else I’ve ever done.

I do think this is a very worthwhile issue to discuss. I don’t think there will ever be any good answers, including mine. But the more we discuss it the more we can deal with the issues of changing language.

Jeffrey F. Smith June 29, 2017 um 7:07 pm

I don’t have a problem with them lightly fixing spelling if it doesn’t change the meaning of the word. I feel the same way with punctuation as long as it doesn’t change the authors meaning I don’t see a problem. What I’d like to know is are they searching out complete original versions or using one of the b*sturdized abridged versions that seem to be all you can find of some of them these days? My reason for asking is I’d like to replace some much loved books from my teens that I cannot find decent full versions of. And due to how many generations have read them they are at a point I don’t want to subject them to any more stress.

EPUB Secrets Weekly Links for 7 July 2017 – EPUBSecrets July 7, 2017 um 9:35 am

[…] On Standard eBooks’ “Light Modernization” (The Digital Reader) […]

Max August 6, 2017 um 7:00 pm

Hi there!

I have randomly downloaded and opened five books they feature on their list: none of them has any cover to it, despite them saying that "Standard Ebooks draws from a vast collection of public domain fine art to create attractive, unique, appropriate, and consistent covers for each of our ebooks." In fact, what they offer in case of Gadfly (if I’m not mistaken) is hardly different from the file found on Project Gutenberg.

Could somebody please tell me what’s their deal? Or am I simply missing something?


Write a Comment