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Jane Austen’s errors

November 25, 2014

I’ve just been re-reading Emma. It is of course one of the most brilliant English novels of the nineteenth century; but I couldn’t help but notice that Jane Austen commits two of my most unfavourite solecisms.

One, she uses refute to mean deny. I’ve been trying to locate the passage, not having noted it when when I came across it, but although I’m fairly sure it was on the left-hand page, a quick riffle through didn’t turn it up, and brilliant though the novel is I don’t want to read all the way through it again. But it was in a scene where Emma disagrees with Mr Knightley about something and “refutes” an idea he presents. But no refutation takes place; Mr Knghtley turned out to be in the right, so Emma could not have refuted him. Odd to think of so pure a stylist making this mistake. (She also uses infer instead of imply, though not in this novel.)

Another mistake is that she confuses sank (past tense) with sunk (past participle). Or was that distinction not established in 1815?

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  1. “Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer; Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

  2. Project Gutenburg – so much easier to search than a real book.

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