Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1765–1787
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vol. III: Literature of the Revolutionary Period, 1765–1787
 
To Noah Webster, On New-Fangled Modes of Writing and Printing
By Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
 
I CANNOT but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of our language, both in its expressions and pronunciation, and in correcting the popular errors several of our States are continually falling into with respect to both. Give me leave to mention some of them, though possibly they may have already occurred to you. I wish, however, in some future publication of yours, you would set a discountenancing mark upon them. The first I remember is the word improved. When I left New England, in the year 1723, this word had never been used among us, as far as I know, but in the sense of ameliorated or made better, except once in a very old book of Dr. Mather’s, entitled Remarkable Providences. As that eminent man wrote a very obscure hand, I remember that when I read that word in his book, used instead of the word imployed, I conjectured it was an error of the printer, who had mistaken a too short l in the writing for an r, and a y with too short a tail for a v; whereby imployed was converted into improved.  1
  But when I returned to Boston, in 1733, I found this change had obtained favor, and was then become common; for I met with it often in perusing the newspapers, where it frequently made an appearance rather ridiculous. Such, for instance, as the advertisement of a country-house to be sold, which had been many years improved as a tavern; and, in the character of a deceased country gentleman, that he had been for more than thirty years improved as a justice of the peace. This use of the word improved is peculiar to New England, and not to be met with among any other speakers of English, either on this or the other side of the water.  2
  During my late absence in France, I find that several other new words have been introduced into our parliamentary language; for example, I find a verb formed from the substantive notice; I should not have NOTICED this, were it not that the gentleman, etc. Also another verb from the substantive advocate; The gentleman who ADVOCATES or has ADVOCATED that motion, &c. Another from the substantive progress, the most awkward and abominable of the three; The committee, having PROGRESSED, resolved to adjourn. The word opposed, though not a new word, I find used in a new manner, as, The gentlemen who are OPPOSED to this measure; to which I have also myself always been OPPOSED. If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations, you will use your authority in reprobating them….  3
  In examining the English books, that were printed between the Restoration and the accession of George the Second, we may observe, that all substantives were begun with a capital, in which we imitated our mother tongue, the German. This was more particularly useful to those who were not well acquainted with the English; there being such a prodigious number of our words, that are both verbs and substantives, and spelled in the same manner, though often accented differently in the pronunciation.  4
  This method has, by the fancy of printers, of late years been laid aside, from an idea that suppressing the capitals shows the character to greater advantage; those letters prominent above the line disturbing its even regular appearance. The effect of this change is so considerable, that a learned man of France, who used to read our books, though not perfectly acquainted with our language, in conversation with me on the subject of our authors, attributed the greater obscurity he found in our modern books, compared with those of the period above mentioned, to change of style for the worse in our writers; of which mistake I convinced him, by marking for him each substantive with a capital in a paragraph, which he then easily understood, though before he could not comprehend it. This shows the inconvenience of that pretended improvement.  5
  From the same fondness for an even and uniform appearance of characters in the line, the printers have of late banished also the Italic types, in which words of importance to be attended to in the sense of the sentence, and words on which an emphasis should be put in reading, used to be printed. And lately another fancy has induced some printers to use the short round s, instead of the long one, which formerly served well to distinguish a word readily by its varied appearance. Certainly the omitting this prominent letter makes the line appear more even; but renders it less immediately legible; as the paring all men’s noses might smooth and level their faces, but would render their physiognomies less distinguishable….
B. FRANKLIN.    
  PHILADELPHIA, 26 December, 1789.
  6
 
 
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