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What is a compositor?

The compositor played a crucial role in the early printing process. In fact, the compositor could influence the language of a piece.

The compositor played a crucial role in the early printing process. In fact, the compositor could influence the language of a piece considerably.

Compositors’ preferences

The compositors (often there was more than one for a substantial work) would supply their own spelling and punctuation preferences. The fact that they set the metal type upside down was an obvious area where errors could creep in. They might also misread a line in the copy text, or accidentally repeat it, or put it in the wrong place. Compositors had no way of doing line-justification automatically, as we do on computers to make the right-hand margin look neat. Instead, they would add extra letters and use other tricks to neaten the lines.

Key alterations – and room for error

Perhaps the key area where quite drastic alterations to the copy-text were made was in getting it to fit on the printed page. Because of the way the sheets of paper were folded, back then you could not print the beginning of the work and then steadily work through to the end. You had to make estimates about how much of the copy text would go on particular pages, and sometimes they got it a bit wrong!

If they did not have enough text for the page, that was less of a problem, because it could be padded out with space. But if they had too much text, they had to adopt various space-saving techniques, including reducing the number of letters in words, splitting words so that the second part might go above a line rather than underneath, and even getting rid of text or substantially abbreviating it.

Getting your head around the folding of the sheets and the implications for preparing the copy text from print is certainly not straightforward.

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