10

I'm struggling to make sense of the word inst. and the long dashes — in this excerpt from E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. The excerpt is part of a letter that the children receive. The dashes are actually em dashes, with no space before or after.

It is proposed to make a small presentation to you, in commemoration of your prompt and courageous action in warning the train on the—inst., and thus averting what must, humanly speaking, have been a terrible accident. The presentation will take place at the—station at three o'clock on the 30th inst., if this time and place will be convenient to you.

I read online that inst. is an abbreviation for instante mense, or current month. Thus the writer is inviting the recipient to a ceremony on the 30th of the current month. That has been made clear through a Google search. But how are we to interpret the first occurrence of inst? Is the long dash to mean that the writer doesn't know the exact date? Or are we to assume that the letter was damaged in transit and is illegible? And furthermore what might have possessed Nesbit to make this decision (as the exact dates are not of particular importance to the story)?

For the second dash, what purpose can the em dash between the and station mean? There is clearly only one station that the writer could be referring to.

4
  • 1
    See this question and its answers for the convention of using a dash to indicate a (pretended) censorship of a name, place, or date. Jan 1, 2023 at 20:56
  • Interesting. This could explain the---station, if the author didn't feel like she wanted to name the station explicitly. But it does not explain the first inst.
    – nuggethead
    Jan 1, 2023 at 21:14
  • 2
    There are many 19th century novels that begin with some variation of "In the year 18—, in the town of N——, ..."
    – printf
    Jan 3, 2023 at 1:02
  • So in the the 1905 edition, these are not em-dashes, they are lower and longer. ( archive.org/details/railwaychildren00nesb_1/page/141/mode/… )
    – Yorik
    Jan 3, 2023 at 22:22

1 Answer 1

17

As Gareth Rees pointed out, the dashes indicate the omission of a name, place, date, or similar.

As per this question, in non-fiction (or fiction referring to real people/events/locations), this would be redaction, to preserve anonymity. That doesn't apply to purely fictional people/events/locations, of course, but the dashes can give the ‘feel’ of reality, avoid unnecessary research, and/or make the novel feel more universal.

This convention for redaction (and also its usage in fiction) seem to have died out over the last century or so.

And, as the question indicates, inst.’ is an abbreviation for ‘instant’, and refers to the current month.

It used to be common in business and other formal contexts; you might say/write “Re. your letter of the 4th inst., …” (meaning the 4th day of this month). Similarly, you might use ‘ult.’ (short for ‘ultimo’) for the previous month, or ‘prox.’ (short for ‘proximo’) for the following month.

However, this usage too has mostly died out over the last half-century (which is why it's unfamiliar now, of course).


Putting those together:

courageous action in warning the train on the---inst.

Here the dashes would seem to stand in place of a date — one that the writer ostensibly knows but is choosing not to reveal (or has been censored for publication). And the use of ‘inst.’ helps to highlight the formal tone of the letter.

take place at the---station

Here the dashes stand in place of a station name.

Note that the letter in the story is clearly not redacted (else the children wouldn't know where to go!) — the redaction must have been applied by the publishers, or (more likely) by the author relating the events. (I'm not clear why one date would be redacted, though, without the other…)

6
  • (I hope it's OK to post this answer, even though it's based on existing comments. I felt that the question deserved a proper answer for posterity — though I'd be happy to withdraw this one if someone more deserving posts a better one!)
    – gidds
    Jan 2, 2023 at 1:09
  • I appreciate the formal answer, @gidds I don't question the validity of your answer, but why the AUTHOR or EDITOR would have made this choice. This is a children's book, and I dispute that a child would catch the subtle nuance of the railway superintendent wanting to avoid publicizing the date of an accident. Nor would they be likely to understand the formal tone of the letter using inst, instead of April, which has already been established as the current month. So, again, thank you for the answer, which has cleared up the intent of the dashes and inst, but the choice still bewilders me!
    – nuggethead
    Jan 2, 2023 at 2:42
  • 13
    @nuggethead The idea is that if the story were true then the author might need to censor names, places and dates in order to preserve the privacy of the people depicted. Of course the story in this case is not true, but by pretending to censor these details, the author gives an impression of verisimilitude. This convention of pretended censorship was common in the late 19th century, so that the original readers of The Railway Children (published 1905) would not have had any difficulty with it. Jan 2, 2023 at 8:57
  • 4
    @gidds: It's always fine to post an answer inspired by or based on comments from other people, especially if you credit them for the idea. Answers in comments don't count as answers on Stack Exchange sites, and people that write such comments are normally happy that someone took the time to expand their quick note into a proper answer. If they'd had the time and inclination to do that, they would have done so themselves instead of just posting a comment. Only time it wouldn't be appropriate is on a low-quality question which should get closed instead of answered, not the case here. Jan 2, 2023 at 11:44
  • 1
    One notes that these abbreviations were to make it easier for people's aching hands. Now that not everything is written out longhand, abbreviations are much less useful.
    – Mary
    Jan 2, 2023 at 19:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.