Tessmer MWF 12:00-12:50
19 October 2010
Assignment 9: An Essay on Language Focusing on 18th-Century Writing Conventions
A Modern Proposal, written in 1729 during the Late Modern English period, resembles
Present- Day English but includes many fundamental differences. One of the most noticeable
variances between the text and the way English is written now is that A Modest Proposal has far
more capitalizations. Swift used capitalization for a great deal of nouns that today would be
considered common nouns and thus not be capitalized.
Another major aspect of Swift’s work is the frequent usage of italicized phrases. In
Present-Day English, italicized words are used most commonly for describing certain
publications and emphasized words. Swift, however, used italics much more liberally and
emphasized words or phrases in almost every sentence.
Spelling differences are also evident when looking at the text. Simply glancing at the
first sentence one can see that double letters were more common in the spelling of Late Modern
English texts. The doubled l in melancholly would be considered misspelled today and Cabbin
would be spelled cabin. Other spelling differences are shown in the words publick and dropt.
Over time, the k in publick was eliminated and the t in dropt was converted into the morpheme –
In addition to spelling changes, A Modest Proposal was written with a different
grammatical style as well. Consider the following sentence:
“As to my own part, having turned my thoughts, for many Years, upon this important
Subject, and maturely weighed the several Schemes of other Projectors, I have always
found them grossly mistaken in their computation.”
To a speaker of Present-Day English, this sentence likely seems to be overly punctuated with
commas. If this sentence were to be grammatically formatted to fit present-day English
standards it would look like this:
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many Years upon this important
Subject and maturely weighted the several Schemes of other Projectors, I have always
found them grossly mistaken in their computation.
This version of the same sentence has two commas instead of the original five. It can be
concluded that Late Modern English was more heavily punctuated than it is now.
A comparison of the “Committee of Five” draft and the final draft of the Declaration of
Independence display a series of fundamental changes in style. The “Committee of Five” draft
contains very little capitalization, whereas the final draft contains frequent capitalization of a
large sum of the nouns in the text. One of the most striking examples is the lack of the
capitalization in the word god in the first draft. Though the capitalization in the first draft more
closely resembles Present-Day English due to its lack of capitalization of common nouns, the
word God is considered a proper noun even in today’s language and thus would be capitalized.
Another factor that sets the two drafts apart is the lack of punctuation in the “Committee
of Five” draft. The first sentence in the “Committee of Five” draft contains merely one comma
but the final draft contains four. In terms of punctuation, the “Committee of Five” draft is more
like present-day English and the final draft is closer to the traditional Late Modern English
example from A Modest Proposal because Present-Day English does not use punctuation as
copiously as shown in the final draft.
The possessive form of the word it undergoes a change from the first to the final draft. In
the original “Committee of Five” draft, the possessive it is spelled it’s. Present-Day English
would not allow for this punctuation, as it’s is only recognized as a conjunction of it is, not a
possessive form. The more correct version by present-day standards is in the final draft, where
its is used without an apostrophe.
A minor detail that changed between the two drafts was the shift from the symbol & in
the “Committee of Five” draft to the actual word and in the final draft. In today’s language, the
written form of and is considered more formal and perhaps this is why the change was made in
these drafts as well.
Finally, one last major difference between the two drafts should be noted: the final draft
is significantly longer than the “Committee of Five” draft. However, it appears that this is not
due to a linguistic style change, but rather the desire to provide additional information.
Stylistically speaking, the final draft of the Declaration of Independence is generally
more like Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal than it is to the “Committee of Five” draft. Both
the final draft and A Modest Proposal have frequent punctuation and capitalization. In contrast,
the “Committee of Five” draft is generally more like Present-Day English because it uses
punctuation and capitalization more sparingly. By taking these documents into account, it can be
deduced that language becomes more informal over time and it is difficult to bind a language to a
specific set of rules as Jonathan Swift wanted to. In general, the less formal “Committee of
Five” draft is the writing style that managed to survive in the English language, proving that the
style that is accepted by the general public is the style that will survive in a language, not the
style prescribed by the language elites.