19 02

Walk the Linguistic Line: What Hannah More Teaches about the Use of Words by Anne Shearer

Termed “the first Victorian” for her 18th and 19th-century moral influence, Hannah More was a Christian, abolitionist and educator. But in all these, she was a writer. She was exact in her words and had definitive beliefs on their best use. As we approach news reporting and commentary biblically, More teaches us to be careful in our praise and precise in our language. Otherwise, we undermine our influence and lose our moral compass.

More believed protecting the power of one’s words requires discernment in using them. Her essay “Thoughts on Conversation” criticized a “habit of exaggeration.” Cheap are the opinions of those who jump to praise any semblance of good. If writers bestow thoughtless approval, readers will “soon discover what degree of faith is to be given both to their judgment and veracity.”

Like praise, critique is best given thoughtfully. Just as we offer approval carefully, we need not dismiss secular ideas or people offhand. More’s ability to enjoy varied company provides an example for us in a culture that does not share our faith. In their respective biographies, authors Eric Metaxas and Karen Swallow Prior highlight her intimate friendships with people who lacked her Christian convictions. Prior notes that some struggled “to grasp the broader mind of More, one whose confidence in her principles did not require that she demand the same of others.”

Even with an ideologically diverse circle, More refused to compromise her values. Writing on meekness, More noted its limits: one who hears “falsehood asserted without contradicting it, or religion prophaned [sic] without resenting it, is not gentle but wicked.” More called for precision in words, expressing alarm at society’s tendency to misrepresent wrongdoing with nice language. In “Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education,” she called for a careful study of accurate word definitions and language use. Otherwise, bad ideas flourish “through the abuse or ambiguous meaning of words.”

More saw a lack of linguistic accuracy as directly related to the loss of a moral compass. “Atrocious deeds should never be called by gentle names,” she wrote in “Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great.” Human nature explains our propensity to sin, More wrote, “but that our reason should ever be exerted in its favor, that our conversation should ever be taught to palliate it . . . has no shadow of excuse.” More warned against “lowering the standard of right” in the way we discuss wrongdoing. Correct definitions are important because if they shift, so can morals.

As with definitions, we should take care with all our words. More wrote in “Strictures” that few people use words well, which creates confusion and obscures truth. This is why we rewrite and edit, choosing our words for utmost clarity.

This also is why we write skillfully, attracting even readers who disagree with us. While More’s “Thoughts” (1788) lambasted many fashionable practices, popular demand devoured seven editions in three months. Our concern is not only with truth but with expressing it well. It does little good to understand the facts if we fail to communicate them effectively.

Christian morality requires our definitions of right and wrong to be biblical rather than cultural. To wield influence as writers, we must speak to society, not retreat from it. More’s life offers an example for such clear-sighted cultural engagement. In Prior’s words, “neither the literary elite nor the strict religionists were pleased. More perhaps did something right in striking a balance somewhere in the middle.”

[This essay won second place in the WJI Essay Competition hosted by WJI Network]