Decoding the Long S in Old Documents

The “long s” of eighteenth-century (and earlier) typography seems strange to us today but was common at one time. It is not a lower-case “f” as many think. Instead, it is “a long s,” which is represented by the similar-but-different character, “.” See the word “Congrefs” in the image below for one well-known example:

Andrew West at Babelstone has created a comprehensive guide to the use of the long s in English as well as in French, Italian, and Spanish He also gives a brief description of its use in other languages as well.

Here are West’s simple rules for English:

  • short s is used at the end of a word (e.g. his, complains, ſucceſs)
  • short s is used before an apostrophe (e.g. clos’d, us’d)
  • short s is used before the letter f (e.g. ſatisfaction, misfortune, transfuſe, transfix, transfer, ſucceſsful)
  • short s is used after the letter f (e.g. offset), although not if the word is hyphenated (e.g. off-ſet) [see Short S before and after F for details]
  • short s is used before the letter b in books published during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century (e.g. husband, Shaftsbury), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. huſband, Shaftſbury) [see Short S before B and K for details]
  • short s is used before the letter k in books published during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century (e.g. skin, ask, risk, masked), but long s is used in books published during the second half of the 18th century (e.g. ſkin, aſk, riſk, maſked) [see Short S before B and K for details]
  • Compound words with the first element ending in double s and the second element beginning with s are normally and correctly written with a dividing hyphen (e.g. Croſs-ſtitch, Croſs-ſtaff), but very occasionally may be written as a single word, in which case the middle letter s is written short (e.g. Croſsſtitch, croſsſtaff).
  • long s is used initially and medially except for the exceptions noted above (e.g. ſong, uſe, preſs, ſubſtitute)
  • long s is used before a hyphen at a line break (e.g. neceſ-ſary, pleaſ-ed), even when it would normally be a short s (e.g. Shaftſ-bury and huſ-band in a book where Shaftsbury and husband are normal), although exceptions do occur (e.g. Mans-field)
  • double s is normally written as double long s medially and as long s followed by short s finally (e.g. poſſeſs, poſſeſſion), although in some late 18th and early 19th century books a different rule is applied, reflecting contemporary usage in handwriting, in which long s is used exclusively before short s medially and finally [see Rules for Long S in some late 18th and early 19th century books for details]
  • short s is used before a hyphen in compound words with the first element ending in the letter s (e.g. croſs-piece, croſs-examination, Preſs-work, bird’s-neſt)
  • long s is maintained in abbreviations such as ſ. for ſubſtantive, and Geneſ. for Geneſis (this rule means that it is practically impossible to implement fully correct, automatic contextual substitution of long s at the font level)

Can you imagine memorizing all those rules? No wonder the character was phased out around 1800!

You can find Andrew West’s excellent article at http://babelstone.blogspot.com/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html.

4 Comments

Great. Let’s have a guide to decoding the cursive t and h that down not transform the to Ye.
Gary

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It is still clear as mud to me!

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You guys are way too funnee…

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Dick, Thanks for finally finding ab article that explains the long s. I deal with it in English and Italian. I have come to recognize it when it appears but now I understand that there are rules guiding it’s use. Always great to learn something new. I learn so much from your postings.

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