Horace Hart: the fascinating creator of an Oxford classic

Shortly after I became Editorial Assistant at OUP, my manager lent me a book called New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors. It’s a useful and interesting book for an editor, as it tells you:

  • to avoid the greengrocer’s apostrophe (e.g. lettuces instead of lettuce’s)
  • the correct way to indicate stammering, paused or intermittent speech (“P-p-perhaps not,” she whispered.)
  • how to capitalise locations in outer space, such as the Milky Way or the moon
  • all 28 letters in the Welsh alphabet.

The original author of this book was Horace Hart (1840–1916), who was Printer to the University of Oxford and Controller of the University Press. According to OUP archivist Martin Maw, being the Printer in the late 1800s meant spending the working day (6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.) in the Oxford Printing House, a ‘warren, [where] one might meet attendants in the hot drying room sporting large paper hats against the sweat, blacksmiths, carpenters, or the chief wetter in the Wetting Cellar, moistening paper from the Wolvercote Mill in a shallow indoor bath’.[1] In our office, we don’t even have paper hats, let alone a Wetting Cellar.

When appointed to his role, Hart overhauled OUP’s dated practices: he introduced new types of printing (monotype and collotype), he travelled to Germany to purchase new fonts, and he expanded OUP’s ink factory. He also issued Rules for Compositors and Readers to ensure consistent first-proof correction – this would later become known as Hart’s Rules. The Preface of my updated version notes that the book ‘was originally a slim twenty-four-page booklet intended only for staff at the printing house … but Hart decided to publish it for the public after finding copies of it for sale’. [2]

Hart had a notorious temper – he was described by a later Printer as ‘a tyrant’ and once fell into a rage on seeing his compositors singing carols at work. The constant stress of the business is one explanation. According to Maw, Hart was required to balance the needs of ‘the Publisher, the Secretary, and the authorities in his parent university, his employees and their union, his suppliers, and the customers of his trade’.[3] These demands were too much: a series of nervous breakdowns led to Hart’s divorce and his retirement from the Press in 1915. The following year, he neatly folded his gloves on the bank of a lake and drowned himself.[4]

Despite his flaws, Hart’s influence on OUP was enormous and continues to this day. Hart’s book, for example, is the reason we spell Shakespeare the way we do. So next time you’re looking up whether to hyphenate a compass point (south-south-east), remember the man behind Hart’s Rules.

9780199570027

New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
9780199570027
$35.95

Alex Chambers is an Editor in Higher Education. He is a keen supporter of the Melbourne Demons, well-placed commas and the communal sweet jar.


[1] Maw, M. ‘The Printer and the Printing House’, in Louis, R. (ed) (2013), The History of Oxford University Press: Volume III: 1896–1970, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 222
[2] Ritter, R.M. (2005), New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, vii
[3] Maw, 219
[4] Winchester, S. (2003),The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 121

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s