St. Thomas More on writing trew Englyshe

September 13, 2021 • 4 min

From Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More, page n22

I have modernised the spelling, but I have been scrupulous not to alter a word in making extracts.

My reason is that More was very precise in his choice of words and in their arrangement, whereas I can discover no rule in the spelling. Besides this, the spelling is not that of the author, but of the printer. By a comparison between the first and second editions of More’s English works, it is clear that the typesetter was free to vary the spelling according to the exigence of the line, adding a final c or doubling a consonant where the modern typesetter would use a space.

The following passage, amusing in itself, will explain what I mean by More’s choice of exact words:


No and Nay

“I woulde not here note, by the way, that Tyndal here translateth ‘no’ for ‘nay,’ for it is but a trifle and mistaking of the Englishe worde: saving that ye shoulde see that he whych in two so plain Englishe wordes, and so common as is naye and no, can not tell when he should take the tone and when the tother, is not, for translating into Englishe, a man very mete.

“For the use of those two wordes in answerring to a question is this: Naye answereth the question framed by the affirmative. As, for example, if a manne should aske Tindall hymselfe: Ys an heretike mete to translate Holy Scripture into Enghishe? Lo, to thys question, if he will aunswere trew Englishe, he must aunswere ‘nay’ and not ‘no’. But and if the question be asked hym thus, lo: Is not an heretyque mete to translate Holy Scripture into English? To this question, lo, if he will aunswer true English, he must aunswer ‘no’ and not ‘may’.

“And a lyke difference is there betwene these two adverbes ‘ye’ and ‘yes’. For if the questeion bee framed unto Tindall by thaffirmative in thys fashion: If an heretique falsely translate the Newe Testament into Englishe, to make hys false heresyes seeme the Worde of Godde, be hys bookes worthy to be burned? To this question, asked in thys wyse, yf he will aunswere true Englishe, he must aunswere ‘ye’ and not ‘yes’. But nowe if the question be asked hym thus, lo, by the negative: If an heretike falsely translate the Newe Testament in to Englishe, to make hys false heresyes seme the Word of God, be not his bokes well worthy to be burned? To thys question, in thys fashion framed, if he wyll aunswere trew Englyshe, he maye not aunswere ‘ye’, but he must aunswere ‘yes,’ and say: ‘Yes, mary be they, bothe the translation and the translatour, and al that wyll holde wyth them’.

“And thys thing, lo, though it be no great matter, yet I have thought good to give Tindall warning of, because I would have him write true one way or other, that, though I can not make him by no meane to write true matter, I would have him yet at the lestwise write true Englishe.”


In this passage we have “God” and “Godde,” “Tyndal” and “Tindall,” “heretike” and “heretyque,” “true” and “trew,” “aunswer,” “aunswere,” “answereth,” “answerring,” and i interchanged with y, ad libitum.

What would be gained by reproducing this medley, to the confusion of the modern reader?—not even More’s own spelling, if my theory of the typesetter’s discretion or licence is correct.

Yet the passage shows that More’s words may not be tampered with. He wrote the purest English of his day, notwithstanding “the tone and the tother,” which was no vulgarism.

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