Part I: In which a space is not a space

This is first in a series of six, and possibly seven, posts with the provisional title “Marking Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Typography, Race, and Textual Transmission.” This series includes much-revised versions of presentations at the Midwest MLA Conference (Minneapolis, 2008) and the Society for Textual Scholarship (New York, 2008).


After some thinking, I’ve decided to remove this post from my blog. What was intended as a spur to re-thinking and revision has not functioned as I had hoped. The post feels “published.” And I’m not revisiting it with the necessary seriousness and attention that is necessary to submit a journal article. I may reconsider yet again. But I’m going to try revising with no series of posts online to distract me.

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3 Responses to Part I: In which a space is not a space

  1. Bill Tozier says:

    There are those among us volunteering at Distributed Proofreaders who would rather not modernize spacing and other typographic conventions. Spacing in contractions (and around quotes, em-dashes and parentheses) is a particularly tricky, though, because in many cases the original was set with thin space, not full wordspace. That is, the space before an apostrophe is narrower than the wordspacing in the same line.

    We’ll never know whether this was because the space was intentionally smaller, or the rules for justification had exceptions for contractions. But the result in many cases is they’re hard to see. At least a few end up disappearing when we proofread.

    I’ve heard it argued at DP that thin spacing around punctuation needs to be removed from the texts we make because they’re aimed at Project Gutenberg’s 1970s-vintage text file format, so they can be read by machines &c &c. But to be honest, much 19th-C dialect is just a royal pain in the ass to transcribe, since it breaks every spell-checker and instinct of most readers.

    Consider for example this book, which we nonetheless tried our best with. How many “unstated editorial decisions” are just less-consequential details missed by four or five different sets of eyes that did their best on the linguistic morass of each page but fell without getting things absolutely perfect?

    • wraabe says:

      I expected the usual lack of comments to my blog posts, especially given that this topic is quite narrow. But I agree that dialect is nearly impossible to transcribe accurately. To add a worry over space will make one more likely to err in other matters. So I am in full agreement. But it depends on the purpose for which a text is transcribed.

      I address editions published and read by scholars of literature, history, and cultural studies, most of whom seem not to have puzzled over the fine distinction between hair spaces, thin spaces, medium spaces, thick spaces, em quads, and en quads.

      My claim, which you have stated quite well–may I borrow?–is that some “less-consequential details missed by four or five different sets of eyes that did their best on the linguistic morass of each page but fell without getting things absolutely perfect” do matter. But my interest is a text that is now one of the most widely read texts American literature canon, but which scholars modernize. I think, if they thought about it, that they might reconsider that choice.

      I have a few more posts to go in order to prove it. But thanks for reminding me that not everyone is inattentive to the little matters that are driving me nuts.

  2. Pingback: Part III: In which a hyphen is not a space « Fill His Head First with a Thousand Questions

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