Tuesday 29 May 2012
On tomorrow and to-morrow and to morrow
A correspondent has been reading Dickens, and writes to ask why to-day, to-night, and to-morrow were used with hyphens, and when did the practice cease. The origins of the practice lie in etymology: the three words were originally (in Old and Middle English) a preposition (to) followed by a separate word (dæg, niht, morwen). As a sense of their use as single notions developed, so the two elements were brought together in writing, but with considerable variation in usage, seen from the earliest records (tonight, to night, to-night). The view that they should be written as separate words was reinforced when Johnson listed them under to as to day, to morrow, and to night (with no hyphen). Nineteenth-century dictionaries (Worcester, Ogilvie, Webster...) opted for the hyphen in all three words, and this was further reinforced when dialectologists included other forms. Joseph Wright, in his English Dialect Dictionary, hyphenates them all, and adds to-year (= ‘this year’, in general dialect use in Britain and Ireland) and to-morn (= ‘tomorrow’, especially in N England - he has examples from Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, and Lancashire). In passing, he also has some nice examples of to-night meaning ‘the night just past’, as in I had slept well to-night, recorded in the English south-west. The OED shows hyphenated examples throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. Latest examples are of to-day (1912), to-night (1908), and to-morrow (1927, with a possible further example as late as 1959). I have personal experience of all three words continuing to be hyphenated as late as the 1970s, as for some years now I’ve been editing the poetry of John Bradburne, who died in 1979, and in all his writing he consistently hyphenates. But he is a poet very much aware of the past, and regularly uses archaisms. The current online OED says simply ‘also as two words and with hyphen’, though this is likely to be revised, given that hyphens were dropped from the eigtth edition of the Concise Oxford in 1990. The steady disappearance of the usage in the 20th century was influenced by Fowler, who in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage comes out against it: ‘The lingering of the hyphen, which is still usual after the to of these words, is a very singular piece of conservatism’. He blames printers for its retention, in a typical piece of Fowlerish irony: ‘it is probably true that few people in writing ever dream of inserting the hyphen, its omission being corrected every time by whose who profess the mystery of printing.’ Today, it’s rare to see it even mentioned as an issue. It doesn’t even merit an entry in Pam Peters’ Cambridge Guide to English Usage.