Susan Grossey

The perils of being pedantic

I have always held that writing historical fiction suits me for three reasons:

  • I’m a bit old-fashioned and rather like living in the past
  • I don’t have a terrific imagination and am happier with a skeleton of known history on which I can hang my story, and
  • I am addicted to research.

However, I do have one character trait which is both a blessing and a curse for the historical novelist: I am a paid-up, card-carrying pedant.  I can usually control my instinct to correct other people, but inside my own head, it’s picky central.  And pedantry is an extremely time-consuming activity.  Here’s today’s example.

I am trying to write a scene where Constable Sam Plank is inspecting a notebook written by a suspected criminal, in which the man uses annotations – an X, a question mark and an exclamation mark.  Just as I am writing this sentence, I hear my inner Queen of Picky: ah yes, but is that what they called those punctuation marks in the 1820s?  And it is remarkably difficult to find out.  And remarkably fascinating to try.  Two hours later I’m no further on with the scene, but I do know that:

  • “question mark” is a modern name – Sam would have known it as a “mark/point of interrogation”
  • “exclamation mark” is probably OK (although back in the 17th century it was a “note of admiration”)
  • F Scott Fitzgerald loathed exclamation marks; Emily Dickinson loved them
  • there is a small town in Canada called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!
  • printers call the exclamation mark a screamer, a gasper, a slammer or a startler.

All fascinating – but that’s two hours gone and I’ve written two sentences.

In a related story, I listened recently to an interview with Antonia Fraser, the hugely respected historian.  She quite forcefully made the declaration that she is not an historical novelist, because her books contain no fiction.  She does not say that someone walked determinedly into a room, for instance, unless the historical record shows determined walking.  Perhaps I’m not being picky enough…


  1. Roy McCarthy Avatar
    Roy McCarthy

    Same. I still live in fear, after eight years, that a small gamble I took concerning a 1935 Jersey location will be mocked mercilessly by the Société Jersiaise. And I’m pondering setting up a Twitter account handle @Spellcheck.

    1. ihatemoneylaundering Avatar

      Tee hee! I sometimes wonder if there were any bloomers that sneaked through in “Fatal Forgery” and will come back to bite me…

  2. danohu Avatar

    ooh, a rare excuse to share my second-favourite* piece of historical punctuation trivia: the 1905 Russian revolution began with a fight over punctuation.

    It started when Moscow print workers went on strike, demanding to be paid for punctuation as well as for other letters. But then the bakers and the railway-workers joined in, and within a week all Russian industry was in a general strike. It all ended up with Russia getting its first parliament, though I’ve never been able to find out what happened to pay for commas.

    * the favourite is NSFW and involves the etymology of brackets. Look it up if you like

    1. ihatemoneylaundering Avatar

      Now this, right here, is why I love blogs and research! I had no idea about this and am oddly pleased at the idea of an entire revolution being triggered by commas. That’s one in the eye for people who say punctuation doesn’t matter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s