Are the abbreviations, used by the author of the following letter, just quotation marks (") which stand for M"->Mr, 26"->26th and 20"->20th or the sign like an exponent is some other different character?

I have to quote exactly certain paragraphs from a few letters, like the one attached, and I have to be sure what sign I should use. [May 26, 1904, Letter of Octave Chanute May 26, 1904, Letter of Octave Chanute


I am well aware that the dates can be written with st, nd, rd, th as superscripts. However, I have found another letter, this time written by Wilbur Wright and addressed to O. Chanute, and it is clear that W. Wright uses 1st with st as superscript and just below st is a quotation mark (").

Is it possible that O. Chanute, in his May 26, 1904, letter, might have eliminated the th and abbreviated everything just by "?

1904-01-08, Letter of Wilbur Wright January 8, 1904, Letter of Wilbur Wright

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    Short answer: those aren't quote marks. The author's handwriting isn't very clear, but M" or 20" is never used as an abbreviation for Mister or 20th. – stangdon Mar 16 '17 at 16:57
  • "M" or 20" is never used as an abbreviation for Mister or 20th". See please the update I added to my initial question. – Simplex11 Mar 16 '17 at 18:46
  • I think those are being used as some kind of markers for the superscript; they're still not exactly doublequote marks. American-style quote marks go at the top of a line, not at the bottom, and never underneath something. – stangdon Mar 16 '17 at 19:56
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    Aha, I found a reference! Things like "nd" or "th" are called ordinal indicators. "The practice of underlined (or doubly underlined) superscripted abbreviations was common in 19th-century writing (not limited to ordinal indicators in particular, and also extant in the Numero sign №), and was also found in handwritten English until at least the late 19th century." Wilbur's vertical double lines are unusual, and might be a personal idiosyncrasy, but I think they fall into the category of "underlined superscripted abbreviations." – stangdon Mar 16 '17 at 20:04
  • In this letter: ( loc.gov/resource/mwright.06008/?sp=14 ) Wilbur clearly wrote a date -- January 1st" 1905 -- and his " look almost identical to those signs used by O. Chanute. Anyway, if I do not find solid evidence that " were used that time instead of st, th, etc., I will not use them and replace the unidentified superscript characters of O. Chanute with st, th, etc.. – Simplex11 Mar 16 '17 at 20:39

At the time of this letter, good penmanship dictated that the "th" of ordinal numbers (sixth, twentieth, etc) should be written as a superscript (small and above the line, sometimes underlined). That's all you're seeing here.

"Mr." is a similar case. Look closely, and you'll see the mysterious symbol is just a superscript "r".

If you're working on some sort of facsimile edition, I would preserve the superscripts. Otherwise, I'd just write "Mr", "26th" and "20th".

  • Welcome to ELL, Frank. Nice answer! – JavaLatte Mar 16 '17 at 17:04
  • See please the update I added. I am still not sure what those superscript character, of O. Chanute, are. – Simplex11 Mar 16 '17 at 19:03

These superscripts are different characters and a kind of unique style of written communication.

It's not uncommon to write as superscript the ending of ordinal numbers (first, second, third, fourth), particularly dates:

I went to see her on the 5th of June.

The meetings are set for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 15th of the month.

Writing Mr. as a superscript is less common, but easy to understand. I, personally, wouldn't do it, but it may have been considered more elegant or formal back in 1904. This person's handwriting is very nice, so he or she might have been trained in a certain way that required the superscript for titles.

Note that while it is possible to write superscripts in text (on StackOverflow, at least, or using special characters) because it's time-consuming most people would just write 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.

  • I updated my question. Explain please the " from Wilbur's letter. My question is if O. Chanute used " instead of st, th, etc. as superscripts or no, and what appears to be " are in fact r, st, nd, th, etc.? – Simplex11 Mar 16 '17 at 18:57
  • Yes, even though they look like random scratches, the marked superscripts are meant to match the ordinal numbers "21st = twenty-first", "20th = twentieth". Wilbur's penmanship isn't as nice so I can't quite make out the date in his letter, but it's probably "1st". "Your letter of 1st" just has been received" is an odd phrase, but maybe just to my modern ears. – Andrew Mar 16 '17 at 19:06
  • Wilbur used ". All his letters are like this. Here is another example (loc.gov/resource/mwright.06007/?sp=11). -- letters of Jan 26th" -- with th as superscript and " just below th. – Simplex11 Mar 16 '17 at 19:24
  • Oh, I see. You're asking if you should use the double marks (") below the superscript? The answer is no, you shouldn't. I don't even know what they are supposed to be, or why he wrote them. Very odd. – Andrew Mar 16 '17 at 20:31
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    @Andrew it reads "Your letter of 1st inst. ... " Inst means "of this month" and is short for "instante mense". The dots under the "st" are just a space filler. The superscript ordinal markers are a vestige of scribal abbreviations from Early Modern English. – James K Mar 16 '17 at 21:19

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