Bad Grammaire

Title page of Philippe La Grue's Nouvelle Grammaire Flamande (Amsterdam , 1701) - Sp Coll Mu31-e.11

Titlepage of Philippe La Grue’s Nouvelle Grammaire Flamande (Amsterdam , 1701) – Sp Coll Mu31-e.11

Something is very strange about this titlepage. Amusingly so. Can you see what it is?

During printing the second “M” of the second word in the title, “GRAMMAIRE”, must accidentally have been omitted (fairly embarrassing for a work on the correct use of language!) and a smaller second M has consequently been stamped-in by hand using a smaller typeface to correct the mistake. Sufficient other copies of the same edition of the work survive, with the same correction, for us to be reasonably confident that this quick fix was made in the printing house prior to sale (rather than made by a subsequent owner).1

Printing mistakes were common during the hand-press period; indeed, if you’ve ever tried to compose some type by hand, manipulating the small metal sorts the right way round and in the correct order, you may be surprised there weren’t a lot more mistakes. Printers generally seem to have taken pains to ensure the fewest mistakes possible made it into print by employing correctors and readers to check through the copy and the various printed proofs to identify mistakes, sometimes taking up to three separate proofs to reduce the chance of error.2

Yet errors always snuck through, leaving the printer and publisher with a number of options for redress.3 If it was a really big or serious mistake they could ‘cancel’ the page or even the whole sheet and reset and reprint it; this was occasionally done but wasn’t to be done lightly since it implied a lot of extra cost in terms of paper and workmanship. Alternatively they could correct the mistake in the printing house. Most commonly this would be done by hand with someone marking up all the sheets pen-in-hand but occasionally other options were taken including pasting printed correction slips over the error or, as in this case, using type metal and hand-stamping the correction. The final, and perhaps most popular method of correcting was to ‘outsource’ the process to the reader by adding a printed errata list (usually at the end of the work) identifying all of the blunders and their page numbers and beside it printing the corrections. It’s quite common to find owners’ hand-written corrections in early-printed books matching these errata slips exactly.

Detail of hand-stamped M (Sp Coll Mu31-e.11)

Detail of hand-stamped M (Sp Coll Mu31-e.11)

What’s really odd about this particular example isn’t the mistake itself; it’s the choice of method to correct it. When such an obvious blunder as misspelling the title is made – in a work on grammar no less – you might expect the printer to cancel the page and reprint it but they haven’t. Why? Well I don’t know for sure but we can hazard a few guesses. The first is cost and materials: it could be that the printer/publisher was unwilling to foot the extra cost of reprinting the page. Paper was expensive, usually the single most expensive part of printing a book. As such it was commonly ordered up in advance with only sufficient quantities ordered to meet the print run;4 using valuable paper to fix this blunder might have meant either ordering more paper or borrowing some paper from another work being printed concurrently potentially reducing that work’s print run – and implied profits. Moreover, the titlepage of this edition is printed in red and black, more complicated and therefore more expensive than simple monochrome printing since it required two runs through the press (one for the red ink; another for the black) for each side of each sheet, adding to the time/labour costs of re-printing further.5 The other possible reason for not cancelling and re-printing is time. The titlepage, preliminaries (e.g. contents, dedication etc) and any errata list are usually the last part of a book to be printed.6 It could be that the book was being produced to a tight deadline (the compositor rushing might also account for the typo) meaning there was simply no time to permit cancelling and reprinting the titlepage. Either way hand-stamping in an extra M in a smaller type is a surprising solution.

Alexander Boswell's ownership inscription (Sp Coll Mu31-e.11)

Alexander Boswell’s ownership inscription (Sp Coll Mu31-e.11)

This particular copy of this work is interesting for another reason too: it was previously owned by Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, father of famous Johnson-biographer James Boswell. Alexander records his ownership, and the apparent place and date of acquisition (“Leyden, 1727”) on the front free endpaper. Boswell, like a huge number of his Scottish contemporaries, studied at the University of Leiden. Esther Mijers contends that over one thousand Scots matriculated at one of the four Dutch universities between 1680-1730.7 Despite Scotland having many more universities than most European countries at the time, it became fashionable for students to round off their education and broaden their horizons (usually after completing study at a Scottish university) with a a period of study in the prosperous, cosmopolitan, and Calvinist, United Provinces. This seems to have been chiefly for education and experience rather than qualifications as many didn’t formally matriculate and even fewer stayed to attain degrees.8 Studying Law at Leiden – Alexander’s choice – was one of the most popular options and taking classes at a Dutch university, Mijers suggests, was deemed an essential part of a future Scottish lawyer’s education.9 It certainly worked for Alexander, who went on to become a respected judge.

Boswell's annotations with translations into English and Scots (Sp Coll Mu31-e.11)

Boswell’s annotations translating into English and Scots. See e.g. the Dutch word Rook translated into Smoke (Eng) and Reek (Sco) (Sp Coll Mu31-e.11)

The book is a Dutch grammar providing instruction, in French, of the Dutch language with accompanying Dutch glossary with translations into French. Throughout the glossary, Alexander 10 has carefully added the corresponding translation into English and occasionally Scots in the margins. Annotations by Alexander in works that he owned are unusual so this is an interesting survivor.11 Mijers has commented that despite a knowledge of the Dutch language being essential to Scottish students’ day-to-day lives outside university, few bothered to learn it, instead relying on Dutch-speaking Scots merchants to act as intermediaries.12 The survival of this annotated grammar is evidence that unlike many of his fellow students Alexander – known in later life for his hard working attitude – was trying to learn some Dutch.


See for example this copy from the National Library of the Netherlands and this copy from Lyon Public Library.
2 A reader (lector) would read the copy aloud while the castigator (corrector) checked the printed proof to see if it matched. cf. Anthony Grafton The culture of correction in Renaissance Europe (London: British Library, 2011), p. 10.
3 For an overview of these see: Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) pp. 134-6
4 Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) p. 142
5 Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) pp. 137-9
6 Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) p. 8
7 Esther Mijers “News from the Republick of Letters” : Scottish students, Charles Mackie, and the United Provinces, 1650-1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2012) p. 33
8 Esther Mijers “News from the Republick of Letters” : Scottish students, Charles Mackie, and the United Provinces, 1650-1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2012) pp. 37-8, 41-2
9 Esther Mijers “News from the Republick of Letters” : Scottish students, Charles Mackie, and the United Provinces, 1650-1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2012) p. 42
10 I believe the notes have been made by him; the hand seems identifiable with the hand in a volume of manuscript lecture notes taken by Boswell (see MS Murray 119)
11 Terry Seymour Boswell’s Books: four generations of collectors and collecting (Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll with support from the Book Club of California, 2016) p. 35. Nb this Dutch grammar is listed in Seymour’s catalogue as number 1936.
12 Esther Mijers “News from the Republick of Letters” : Scottish students, Charles Mackie, and the United Provinces, 1650-1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2012) p. 52-55

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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5 replies

  1. I wonder: the French had a standard-spelling in those days allready? The Dutch got theirs only in 1805 (Siegenbeek).

    • Thanks for the question (sorry I only just saw it!). Yes, this was something I wondered about too. From what I can tell (I’m no expert on this) the French seem to begin to standardise spelling quite early (16th century) with it becoming fairly standard by late 17th. Febvre & Martin (L’apparition du livre) argue that Dutch and Flemish printers (Plantin, Elzevirs etc) played an important role in this since they published considerable quantities of French books yet their employees had only a rudimentary knowledge of the language. To reduce error they had house styles which simplified and regularised French orthography. I’d be interested to read more on this though.

      Re Dutch printing practice you may also be interested to read this from Goran Proot (then at the Folger) on the use of V and U in Flemish 17the century books

  2. Nobody would notice these days.


  1. Merkwaardig (week 34) |

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