Why is Jane Austen guilty of “cacography?” (Are you guilty, too?)

Jane Austen is known for her clean and eloquent prose. But new scholarly work shows that the great novelist’s editor likely played a bigger role in Austen’s literary pursuits than previously thought.

(By the way, do you know what language the word novel comes from? Find out here.)

In fact, it seems that Austen may have been guilty of cacography, or bad handwriting, poor penmanship, and incorrect spelling. Her grammar, as well, may have been spotty. Few writers compose by hand any more, and electronic tools like spell check catch many of our mistakes. So, while we may be just as prone to errors as writers in past generations, we are less likely to leave a paper trail of our mistakes.

(The QWERTY design made the transition from handwriting to typing possible for many of us. What do the letters of “QWERTY” stand for? Learn about that here.)

Don’t confuse cacography with orthography. Orthography is what we strive for: correct spelling and “writing words with the proper letters.”  It is also what the part of language study concerned with letters and spelling is called.

And while we’re on the subject of famous writers, did you know that the mastermind behind the Harry Potter series has been accused of plagiarism? Plagiarism is a word that is often misused. Figure out how to use the word correctly, here.

These notes about the author of Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and other classic novels are meant in mirthful tribute, not criticism. We wouldn’t want a discerning academic to scrutinize our rough drafts. Would you? In that spirit, we give the esteemed Ms. Austen the last word: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

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