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.”


  1. plexi -  October 24, 2015 - 4:54 pm

    A teddy looks more bear like and more grown up with smaller eyes.
    Place your paper or cardstock onto the inked block and don’t
    move it. Using some sort of coloration wash as well as gray color, put inside other base of bulb.

  2. Ciccio -  March 31, 2012 - 6:14 am

    Novel simply means ‘new’ in Latin, that’s where novel comes from. No Biblical (Biblos: greek word for “Book) connection whatsoever.

    Caco is also Greek rooted, meaning ugly. One good word is “kakistocracy” (the government of the worst). For example:
    Obama’s populist government is the great example of modern-day kakistocracy.

    Also, the tabs in the article are very condescending and distracting. But possibly good for kids who are not forced to go to public schools.

  3. Glenn -  February 15, 2011 - 6:29 pm

    Great read! You might want to follow up on this topic??

    Kindest regards,


  4. ethana2 -  November 1, 2010 - 10:37 pm

    Crediting qwerty with anything good makes me sad. ~colemak typist

  5. Drae's Bar&Grill -  October 31, 2010 - 11:00 am

    Geez, stay on subject, Dictionary. i clicked this because I’m reading jane Austen, and I don’t care where the word novel came from!

    • Jacqelyn Hyde -  November 4, 2015 - 4:15 pm

      If you don’t care where the word ‘novel’ came from then you don’t deserve to read anything better than Jane Austen; indeed, you don’t even deserve to read that. Go back to Dan Brown, or watch TV.

  6. smoothius -  October 28, 2010 - 12:46 pm

    cacography huh? i’ll just stick with chickenscratch- more fun to say on a side note, anyone know why doctors always have such horrible handwriting? I think that must be part of the entrance exam. (no sorry mr smith you can’t be a doctor, your handwriting is impeccable!)

  7. artemisia -  October 27, 2010 - 8:58 am

    Somebody who has never read Jane Austen, wow. Actually, I’ve been reading aloud to someone who can no longer see to read, and I have discovered subtleties in her paragraphs that I never noticed when just reading for myself.

  8. Will -  October 27, 2010 - 8:21 am

    “Bad handwriting” and “poor penmanship” are the same thing, but way to go with copying the definition without thinking about its meaning.

  9. louis paiz -  October 27, 2010 - 5:46 am

    the subject turn into what is misspelled or who type the wrong word just remmember that most of us do not have enough time to proof read so please accept it as a rough draft.

  10. Curly Hair -  October 26, 2010 - 4:31 pm

    Blake Charlton takes the word “cacographer” to a whole new level in his book Spellwright. It is a delightful, ingenious novel that I highly recommend to all fantasy lovers. Do look into it!

    Dictionary.com, would you please restructure the first sentence of your third paragraph? It is confusing when a parenthetical phrase set aside by commas is placed within a list. As for the sentence after that – would you please put “as well” at the end of the sentence? It is best to keep verbs and the nouns they modify as close to each other as possible.

  11. dewOnthegrass -  October 26, 2010 - 4:06 pm

    kuick les spel evrything rong onn perpous!

  12. Tim -  October 26, 2010 - 2:45 pm

    Could someone tell me what the “glaring grammatical error” is in the title? I was reading this and found it delightful, but then I read the comments and didn’t really want to take the time to suss out the aforementioned mistake. Is it the comma before “too” and/or the question mark placement inside the apostrophes? Thank you to anybody for telling me what the hell everyone is talking about. :)

    Also, whether you got tickled by the article or not, it’s gnarly seeing so many people get this worked up about words…. Well, grammar, but close enough. Refreshing to not be the only one thinking about this stuff.


  13. Michael Dadona -  October 26, 2010 - 2:40 pm

    The first thing to look is the background of commentator on Austen’s work. Different people has their own level of quality in forwarding their comment as input and in this case does majority be the main role to decide for good or bad?.

    Many things in the past were unpopular or rejected in that generation, but well analyzed and accepted as a great thing in the next generation. So, this article making Austen’s works popular with different views of commentaries.

    A good writer is who writes by heart with original ideas or writing an extension to the existing and make it much better. About grammatical error, let the interested parties do the correction. This is the thing not all academicians can write and publish good books, but they can be good checkers or correctors and not writers.

  14. Saf -  October 26, 2010 - 2:29 pm


    That’s a bit hypersensitive, don’t you think? The article wasn’t exactly a scathing lampoon of female authors, it just made the point that some authors who are revered for their eloquence actually owe that credit to their editors.

    In response to your statement,”It should go without saying that female authors are just as deserving of their success as their male counterparts.” That doesn’t even begin to make sense. Are you suggesting that every female author has a male counterpart? Or that all male authors are successful? Or that all male authors are deserving of their success? Or that female authors deserve their success whether they earned it or not?

    If you mean that female authors should be judged on the same merits that male authors are, then I fully agree. However, being female is not actually one of those merits (obviously), and certainly doesn’t preclude female authors from the same scrutiny that male authors receive.

    Would Jane Austen be a household name if she weren’t female? I really can’t convince myself that it would be. The fact that she was published and taken seriously in a time when it was difficult for female authors to do either does contribute to her credit as a member of the female gender, but not to her credit as an author.


  15. JoyCorcoran -  October 26, 2010 - 2:05 pm

    Grammar is a wonderful thing for clarifying meaning, but it’s not a good storyteller and has little personality. Writing and typing “mistakes” can be as endearing as any other personality quirk. Thank God for copy editors, they have a special place in heaven. It’s at the table of the great storytellers.

  16. Jay J -  October 26, 2010 - 2:03 pm

    I think its pretty unusual to be accused about something like this.

  17. J_Jammer -  October 26, 2010 - 1:56 pm

    I think some of you grammar Nazis need to watch this video

    And Dictionary.com is one of my favorite websites. I love you Dictionary.com. =) Keep up the good work.

  18. The Conjunction -  October 26, 2010 - 1:56 pm


    A conjunction can appear at the beginning of a sentence. For example, in the sentence “Because we walked for hours, we were tired at the end of the day,” the subordinating conjunction “because” introduces the dependent clause that forms the first part of this complex sentence (dependent clause + independent clause).

    Also, the opening sentence of your comment–”Never having read Jane Austen I cannot comment on her spelling or grammar, history books are a lot more fun”–contains a comma splice. A comma is not strong enough to join to independent clauses; instead, you must use a comma and coordinating conjunction or a semicolon (alternatively, you can just put a period in between the two sentences).

  19. You know she has a point some of you did get your facts wrong and dictionary.com does try to fill us in on some kinda of interesting stuff( I say its interesting because if u request them to answer a question some how then they answer it eventually so that means somebody was interested in the topic). :)

  20. Gregory M. Elmthorp -  October 26, 2010 - 1:40 pm

    I was always Interested in Reading her book’s because I always Remember that she is a famous writer and even though maybe She wrote with a bad Handwriting, I think we Should Leave Her alone on this issue. No Body is Perfect, DICTIONARYCOM!

    -Prof. Greg

  21. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 26, 2010 - 1:37 pm

    [[[[[P.S. Regarding the VERACITY of the statement regarding NOAH and NOVA: The lore was recorded that Adam told Seth to make two columns one of brick to withstand flood and one of mud to withstand fire because the Earth was about to be destroyed and survivors or-next-visitors should be apprised of which, calamity, had struck... fire + flood = nova... 10% joking? Ray]]]]]

  22. jane doe -  October 26, 2010 - 1:24 pm

    Ummmmm…. I have yet to figure out the POINT of this article.(Other than throwing down a great writer!!)
    Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry has not only managed to add as many links as possible that have nothing to do woith the articles topic intruding on the peice by attempting more then once to tell us the origin of words that NO ONE who has a life and has something more important to do ather then read links all day cares about. Jane Austen is a GREAT writer, and if you want to attack someone for not having perfect penmanship,grammer, and incorrect spelling I truely would like to hear you say that you are perfect at any of it.
    **~hint of advise for this author and future authors:Cut down on links and just right it in parathesis.It saves everyone way more time to dao things that are actually NOT a waste fo time!~**

  23. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 26, 2010 - 1:23 pm

    Yes, Meedier posts would be nice …

    NOVEL, was URL-linked in the topic post … (absolute relevance)

    This particular forum might be termed, CACODICTION …

    The punctuation goes INSIDE-THE-QUOTEMARKS … however, I use semiquotes (semiquotemarks semi-aka apostrophes) on the inside, of punctuations …


    1. JANE AUSTEN, was an ENGLISH NOVELIST– wherefor (whofor) plurality is subject to debate: e.g. “The gouvernment are,” is correct non-Amer. English.

    2. e.g. AUSTIN TEXAS, being a city, could have originally been in the plural, in non-Amer. English.

    3. JANE AUSTEN, may have been the originatrix of AUSTENTATIOUS….

    4. Maybe like fish, the plural of AUSTEN is AUSTEN….

    5. But on the otherhand the LATIN PLURAL of AUSTEN would be AUSTINA.

    6. But alas, mais alors, THEY changed the title to–

    (probably should be FOUND-guilty… hoohooheehee).

    7. And yet, then again,– Shouldn’t the title be,

    “Why WAS Jane Austen guilty of…?”


  24. Ms. Disappointed -  October 26, 2010 - 1:13 pm

    I’m Ms. Disappointed because it seems as though all who commented on the title 1. missed the joke and 2. only referred to someone else’s misquoted comment. The title reads “Why is Jane Austen guilty of “cacography?” (Are you guilty, too?)” Not “Why are…”

    I like Dictionary.com for many reasons, and their articles are fun and appreciated. It is not necessary to fill the comment section with your ‘disapproval’ and criticism… especially if you can’t take the time to scroll back to the top and make sure you are accurate before providing such criticism.

    Thumbs up to Dictionary.com for their attempts to shed knowledge on so many who need it… no disrespect intended, just stating truth.


  25. Dude -  October 26, 2010 - 12:54 pm

    To all who commentted about the title.

    It’s suppose to have the grammar/spelling errors its a joke!

  26. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 26, 2010 - 12:53 pm

    A high-tech example of CACOGRAPHY would be MultiPoint Mouse SDK: where up to 25 children on 25 mouses can draw on the same webpage … (Reminds one of the Bob Newhart sketch about infinite-monkeys-on-infinite-typewriters-composing-Shakespeare…’To-be-Or-not-to-beeblebizzle…’).


    * “mouses” (Computer rovots, being called, mouses, not mice….)

  27. Madeleine -  October 26, 2010 - 12:22 pm

    To Hot Word: What exactly is the thesis of this article? Based on the quote at the end and the way you’ve singled out only female authors, I can’t help but wonder if you’re trying to make a statement about the achievements of female authors in general. If so, you should be ashamed. It should go without saying that female authors are just as deserving of their success as their male counterparts.

  28. luvmykids -  October 26, 2010 - 11:46 am

    Stop criticizing dictionary.com. They do a great job with teaching people. I don’t mind that they have word in parantheses that I have to click on it to view and read it. Is better than getting a dictionary and not have all the information. These is a useful tool for both me and my kids especially when it comes to vocabulary.

  29. Clancy -  October 26, 2010 - 11:08 am

    We must consider the possibility that the author of this piece could be influenced by English writing rules where enclosing the sentence punctuation within the quotes is allowed.

    Ferret, ITA with you. Patrick, isn’t it wonderful that folks with short attention spans (or little desire to increase knowledge) can merely skip over said links? Many of us, myself included, thoroughly enjoy the links. I usually read through the article first then return to the link. Because I generally browse with my phone. When on a PC I can’t wait and open multiple tabs. I hope Dictionary.com continues to include the links.

  30. Mark V -  October 26, 2010 - 9:56 am

    This is not a personal attack on Jane Austin, this is public knowlege being made more public.

    Even though she is a good writer, why should that grant her immunity from scrutiny? Her transgression discussed here is small ( though you wouldn’t think so form other peoples responses to the Blog titles error)

    That aisde, I found this installment to be delightfully meta.

  31. Bruce -  October 26, 2010 - 9:45 am

    QWERTY design was created to slow down typists as early model typewriters would jam easily. Ten years later the QWERTY design was not needed but by then we were stuck. Now we use keyboards on computers and the design is even more antiquated and out of touch. The Dvorak simplified keyboard was an effort to correct the flaws in the QWERTY design but with fixed key keyboards not easily changed from user to user the move to Dvorak has been no more successful with computers than it was with typewriters. We appear to be stuck with a fix that has been contributing to tunnel carpel problems for the past 137 years.

  32. Sasha -  October 26, 2010 - 9:33 am

    There are entirely too many hyperlinks throughout this article. The author keeps getting side-tracked. It’s extremely annoying.

  33. Kate -  October 26, 2010 - 9:20 am

    Yeah i definately agree with JSB. The comments are usually better that the article.

  34. David -  October 26, 2010 - 9:18 am

    Dear Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry, you are joking about the Noah/novel thing, right?

  35. Scott -  October 26, 2010 - 8:30 am

    These articles are potentially interesting,

    (did you want to learn more about the origin of the word “interesting?” I know it has nothing to do with the article you were reading, but c’mon! We make a nickel every time you click.)

    but the shameless plugs to other articles shoe-horned into each one is very distracting. There must be a better way to redirect

    (Ever wonder about the origin of the word “redirect?” Me neither)

    people to other content on this site – as it is, I doubt I’ll be clicking on any more articles. It’s like the writer has ADD.

    (By the way, did you want to know the origin of the term “ADD?” No, probably not…)

  36. Saf -  October 26, 2010 - 8:08 am

    Come on, we NEED a word to describe defective snakes!


  37. sindhu -  October 26, 2010 - 8:07 am

    actually this trick is good!! but insane!!!

  38. Gabbi -  October 26, 2010 - 7:46 am

    If people referring to a grammatical error in the article’s title are suggesting that the verb has been conjugated incorrectly, I’d have to respectfully disagree. The verb has to be made plural because of the parenthetical clause. Technically there are two subjects in the sentence. Although I would argue that instead of putting the clause in parentheses, commas would have made the issue less ambiguous.

  39. Little Miss no-one -  October 26, 2010 - 7:22 am

    Maybe Jane Austen is dyslexic, like me but I am still a normal person and in fact lots of people are dysilexic!
    p.s I love her books!!

  40. Jay Jay -  October 26, 2010 - 7:06 am

    Ferret: “no one has immaculate handwriting, grammar, or spelling.”

    A sweeping and somewhat offensive statement if ever I heard one.

  41. Ang -  October 26, 2010 - 7:02 am

    Why am I reading a ridiculous article on a website that is only good for remembering antiquated, didactic definitions?

  42. Terpsi -  October 26, 2010 - 7:01 am

    Shouldn’t the title read “Why is Jane Austen……….?”

  43. Nathan Hunter -  October 26, 2010 - 6:50 am

    I’m soooo guilty. Even though I like to write, I have HORRIBLE handwriting, can’t spell a darn thing especially words like nuecler…necluer…or redikulous…you get my point. My grammar could be better. I have a lot of trouble with verbs and noun-verb agreements espesially (can’t spell that either) when it comes to forms of be like is, are, was, and were.

  44. Alan Turner -  October 26, 2010 - 6:44 am

    Never having read Jane Austen I cannot comment on her spelling or grammar, history books are a lot more fun. However, that is no reason for all of us in modern times to be ignorant of both. A conjunction cannot come at the start of a sentence or a paragraph and yet here we have Dictionary.com riddled with them. Cacography? humbug. Perhaps someone would like to prove me wrong by looking it up and pointing out my mistake.

  45. alexis -  October 26, 2010 - 6:32 am

    I wish these posts were a little more meaty. They could be really interesting but they’re always just one or two topical sentences crammed with as many links as possible.

  46. Amy-Lou -  October 26, 2010 - 6:29 am

    Okay I don’t really see the point of reading this. If she was a good writer then people need to leave her alone other wise who cares what she did or didn’t do.
    love amy

  47. Sid -  October 26, 2010 - 6:29 am

    “We wouldn’t want a discerning academic to scrutinze our rough drafts.” Irony wins again!

  48. Maria -  October 26, 2010 - 6:25 am

    To be honest, I stopped paying attention to the article after the grammatical error. My thought was that if the author couldn’t get the title right, anything beneath it wasn’t going to be worth reading.

  49. alorah -  October 26, 2010 - 5:48 am

    @ JBS I agree with you ! ! !…. hahaha

  50. John Moore -  October 26, 2010 - 5:16 am

    If the phrase (and perhaps even you)is in parenthesis, wouldn’t the sentence read, “Why is Jane Austen (and perhaps even you) guilty of “cacography”?

    Isn’t it correct to read the sentence as if the parenthetical phrase weren’t included?

    Secondly, isn’t the question marked placed outside the quoted word?

  51. MU -  October 26, 2010 - 5:10 am

    It’s so funny to read all this, but very educational. I suppose we all do the “bad penmanship.” By the way, where did paragraph indentation go? How was Jane on that?

  52. Nikki -  October 26, 2010 - 3:27 am

    Mr Raymond Kenneth Petry??? Would the history of the word “novel” be distantly relevant in such a blog?


  53. john doe -  October 26, 2010 - 3:11 am

    How come Jane Austin and her Emma is on focous?

    Ex prime minister of Japan once asked Bill Clinton at the meeting, “who are you?” instead he meant “how are you?”

    Clinton replied “I’m Hilary’s hasband.”

    I don’t know which is the punch line.

  54. Amy -  October 26, 2010 - 2:52 am

    Talking about grammatical errors, the title itself ‘Why ARE Jane Austen…’ speaks loads.

  55. JSB -  October 25, 2010 - 11:39 pm

    lol… I find the comments more interesting than the article.
    Cheers, ye all!

  56. Jeevendra -  October 25, 2010 - 10:49 pm

    While on the subject of ‘cacography’ thought of mentioning some other caco- words…

    Cacopygian – No one likes to be like this. It means “having ugly buttocks”. And everybody loves a callipygian… (pyge is a Greek word which means ‘buttocks’) And ‘dasypygal’ is having ‘hairy buttocks’. :D
    Cacodaemon – An evil spirit
    Cacodoxy – An erroneous doctrine or thought
    Cacology – defective speech

  57. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 25, 2010 - 10:46 pm

    There is some indication that, NOVEL, comes from, NOAH, pronounced, Nuwah, because there was a NOVA preceding his Great Flood … Or perhaps it would be, Noah-El, (That’s novel).

    Oddly enough, by comparison, CACOPHONY, does not, mean, bad speech but a jumble of speech caused by several speakers at once … If this were more universally true, then CACOGRAPHY would be the process of several writers on the same page at once (e.g. SEE ABOVE: some tight minutes).

    SPELLCHECK is a nuisance: It rarely gets enough of the words to make the process efficient … It doesn’t know, CACOGRAPHY, SPELLCHECK,….

  58. Ferret -  October 25, 2010 - 10:37 pm

    Patrick: I rather like that there are links to other blogs, because then readers have the choice whether they want to read it or not. Then they can post a comment on it after they’ve read it on the original blog page :) Just my opinion though.

    Ian Dubh: Here are a few sources:

  59. Ferret -  October 25, 2010 - 10:36 pm

    Even though she’s one of the most well-known authors out there, Jane Austen IS only human, just like the rest of us. I somewhat almost expected it(cacography), because no one has immaculate handwriting, grammar, or spelling.

  60. Mark Harris -  October 25, 2010 - 10:32 pm

    Her editor, William Gifford, described her handwriting as “excellently plain”, though clearly she had some problems with punctuation. Not surprising for a writer with little formal education, which makes her literary achievements all the more remarkable. I’ve blogged on the challenges facing a young woman writer in Austen’s era…

  61. molokidan -  October 25, 2010 - 9:54 pm

    Yeah, talk about irony…

  62. D-Payne -  October 25, 2010 - 9:44 pm

    Dear Maria,
    I believe you missed the joke.

    Your friend,

  63. Cyberquill -  October 25, 2010 - 9:39 pm

    Ambigraphy – when an otherwise beautifully handwritten sentence contains one or more words each of which could be one of two candidates, e.g., He pinched the con versus He punched the can.

    Yes, ambigraphy is a real word. I just coined it. Please include on a certain Web site.

  64. Maria -  October 25, 2010 - 9:36 pm

    I don’t think you’d need to be a “discerning academic” to see the glaring grammatical error in the title of this article.

  65. Ian Dubh -  October 25, 2010 - 9:06 pm

    Frustrating! Where is this “new scholarly work” you refer to? That’s what I clicked the FB link to find out.

  66. Dewi -  October 25, 2010 - 9:01 pm

    I agree with Patrick! Having to open another tabs and tabs and tabs are simply annoying.

  67. Patrick Bartlett -  October 25, 2010 - 8:36 pm

    I wish they would just tell us the things in the parentheses instead of having us click on the link, it’s so annoying.


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