I was just thinking how even in books and newspapers prior to the computer age, like in the 1950s and before, there were a lot of errors that are glaring now but I am sure were accepted then.

So I wonder if a more extreme case of this existed until the late 1800s (when improved printing and writing technology occurred, more automation in printing and better pens and ink and cheaper paper) so that rather than people having no idea how to spell and punctuate and capitalize, it was simply that it was too time-consuming to deal with the errors that would inevitably arise while using the very primitive quill pens, probably low-quality ink and paper which were nonetheless expensive and so writers and printers let things stand instead of crossing them out or starting over with a new sheet of paper.

EDIT: The original idea I had concerned not books but hand-written letters and other documents which would not have the same process as setting type for a book or newspaper.

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    I question the premise of this question. There are far more errors in published books now than there were in the early 20th century. In those days, books were actually thoroughly and repeatedly proofread before printing, something which is very often nowadays cut for budget reasons. Random text writers typing on a computer leads to far more errors than skilled scribes or typesetters made. Also, it’s not that people had “no idea how to spell and punctuate and capitalize”, but rather that orthography was less fixed back then. Variations were not errors, just variations. Feb 16, 2021 at 18:48
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    There are some types of suboptimalities that computers have made much less frequent, such as bad kerning and uneven spacing (though they absolutely still exist). I have never been able to find 20 typos on a single page in any older book, though, which I have in modern books. Naturally, there’s a huge span, in that a book that brings in millions in revenue will be better proofread than an obscure volume that’s barely turning a profit – but the skew is definitely further towards the latter today in my experience. Feb 16, 2021 at 20:17
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    @releseabe If you misspell on a typewriter, you have to correct on a typewriter, it's the same. Also, the manuscripts were received by editors and proofread. Simple errors would have been corrected before reaching the typesetting stage. The typesetting could introduce mistakes on its own - but completely independent of any pen or typewriter. Feb 17, 2021 at 11:03
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    What has expensive parchment have to do with 18th century writers? In middle ages scribes used erasures. Feb 17, 2021 at 15:00
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    No, they would use erasures or corrections. You can just strike the error and write it again, correctly. You can also remove the ink by scrubbing. This has nothing to do with the 18th century. Feb 17, 2021 at 15:02

2 Answers 2


Tl;dr I wouldn't attribute it to quill pens at all.

One important thing to remember is that spelling has not always been uniform. Unlike many other languages, English has never had a central authority that decides what is proper English and what isn't; in the early 19th century, Noah Webster decided to overhaul spelling in his dictionary, and because of that Americans still write -ize, -or, -er instead of -ise, -our, -re today (standardize, color, center vs standardise, colour, centre). Even nowadays, it's mostly the creators of spell-checkers and style guides who determine these things, rather than the government.

So if someone was writing a private letter to a friend in the 18th century, our modern notions of "standard" spelling didn't really apply. Some people would try to show off their education by using foreign spellings for foreign-derived words, while others would adapt them to English conventions, and no central authority would declare one of them right or wrong. People were taught "proper" spelling in schools, with the weight of tradition behind silent E's and silent GH's, but the details varied a lot in the edge cases, and even today educators don't all agree on things like "worshiped" versus "worshipped". (I was taught the latter, but that's rare in America.)

And since "standard" spelling was mostly the purview of publishers, private letters weren't examined especially thoroughly. If I want to publish a book nowadays, the editors will tell me whether to use "worshiped" or "worshipped"; if I want to send an email, who cares? The only real difference is that now a spellchecker might complain about one of them, but that's a feature of computers, not of better pens or typewriters. The real difference is that spelling has become more and more standardized over time—but as late as the 20th century, the Chicago Tribune used a totally different set of standards from the rest of America, with spellings like "burocrat" and "hocky". ("Catalog" and "thru" have caught on; most of the others haven't.)

As far as paper being too expensive to start over—back when high-quality writing materials were at their most expensive (the mediaeval period), monks would go to great lengths to erase or correct mistakes rather than letting them stand. And marginal notes have always existed. Later, even on a typewriter people wouldn't want to start over completely unless it was necessary; there's a time cost to rewriting everything from the beginning, no matter how cheap paper gets. It's only in the era of word processors that errors have actually become trivial to fix. So this doesn't have anything to do with quill pens either.

  • Possibly (I stress the possibly) the loss of long s right around 1800, as well as a pronounced change in handwritings at the same time, might have something do do with quill pens falling out of use. Curly s is harder to write with a quill than a straight line.
    – jlawler
    Feb 17, 2021 at 21:18
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    @jlawler True, but I don't think I'd call a change in handwriting the same as a change in spelling. The Platonic Ideal of the letter S was the same, it was just shaped differently.
    – Draconis
    Feb 17, 2021 at 21:22

I suppose the quick and easy reply is that a great deal of what we today call "errors" would in pre-industrial times have been seen as "variants".


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