In praise of pedantry

ped·ant  (pdnt)
1. One who pays undue attention to book learning and formal rules.
2. One who exhibits one’s learning or scholarship ostentatiously.
3. Obsolete A schoolmaster.
[French pédant or Italian pedante (French, from Italian), possibly from Vulgar Latin *paedns, *paedent-, present participle of *paedere, to instruct, probably from Greek paideuein, from pais, paid-, child; see pedo-2.]
(   06.04.2011)

Many years ago I read an anthropologist/linguist’s report of an island where, if the incorrect word was used, one of the hearers would say “You mean _____” and the speaker would not be considered to have said anything until ve repeated the section in the correct form.  I could live with that …

When I question the choice of words in a piece – even a serious news article – I am often told “Oh, that’s a pedantic distinction – you know what they mean, really”.  If I complain that the sentences are in poor order, that the third-last paragraph on the page  should be rewritten and put in the middle of the second – the same result.

I suspect that this is partly a result of teaching literacy with a heavy  emphasis on  overall communication, avoiding the hack-work of teaching correct usage.  Supported by a combination of postmodernism and an uncritical application of the anthropological perspective, many people now feel that “near enough is good enough”.

Me, I feel incorrect usage is very dangerous.  I am glad that the proposed Australian Curriculum includes the distinctions between casual and formal use of langauge, and between dialects and Standard English.

I have observed this sequence:

  1. The correct form has  a precise meaning.
  2. A form with a different meaning becomes commonly, incorrectly, used for that other meaning.
  3. People who have experienced the common form do not understand a serious work using the correct form:  “Transpire”, in the 19th century creative use of “the truth gradually seeping out” – per plant transpiration,  is a case in point, as many people now think it means “happen”, and do not understand its use in relation to many modern government lie scandals.  Even worse, they may not understand the incorrect form in its correct use: consider “reticent”, often used for “reluctant” .  “Reluctant” hardly fits the traditional bush Australian: reticent, even reserved, but very  willing to comment in marvelously compact and acid quips.  Their laconic speech style is easily explained with the aspect of reticent as the converse of verbal diarrhoea, and the connotations of reticence fit the cultural dislike of “big-noting yourself”.
  4. In addition, the incorrect usage can obliterate a range of synonyms.  I recently suffered through a hundred pages where “decimated” was used to mean devastated (a farming region), almost exterminated (a cultural group), winnowed (an army), routed, reduced to rubble, depopulated, slaughtered, overwhelmed, restricted (trade), … 17 times in that section.  I will save the author’s blushes by not adding the reference.
  5. Even worse, in important legal documents words are and must be used with their precise meanings – to the extent of having the particular meanings defined in the preamble to a piece of legislation or a contract.  Those used to “flexible” use of language are challenged by this.
  6. Finally, and to my mind worst of all, accepting incorrect forms makes it harder for the learner to find the deep meaning patterns within the language, meaning they have more details to remember as solitary aspects rather than as examples of a family of related patterns.  This makes difficult  the acquisition of a wide vocabulary, one  accurately, poetically,  and creatively applied.  Orient (East) , orientation (finding East) , disoriented (lost track of East), disorientation (the process of losing track of East) – all fit with the proper application of affixes to roots.   If you use “disorientated”,  either the link to The Orient is weakened, or the pattern of application of “-ate, -ed / -ion” is lost. (1)  Similarly, where poorly sequenced texts prevail, how are the students to develop a feeling for good structure?

I propose:

I think that newspapers and  supermarkets should have a monthly prize draw for people who suggest improvements to  their written work, and publish the best alongside the original:  every public text affects the understanding and expectations of inexperienced users.

I believe that teachers have a duty to ask their students to correct public text – to edit and produce a better version.  I believe that teachers more often should assess written work twice: once for content, then for correct form.  (Yes, the “correct form” assessment could be done over several iterations:  “Yesterday we looked at spelling, today we do punctuation.” )  I also believe that the teacher should teach students the correct forms for what they want to say, regardless of the curriculum:  I was saddened to hear a student who speaks with colons, dashes, parentheses, and ellipses (and who naturally tried to write that way) say “No, we don’t use those yet.”  Ve would be a much better writer if ve were liberated from the simple structures the basic punctuation signs allow.

I am at heart a teacher.  I am intensely interested in science, where precise meaning is important.  I am a chronic word-player – a condition where a sentence with three meanings, all simultaneously true, is a deep delight.    I am also, inevitably, a pedant.  I think I’ll get a badge to declare it publicly.

Anyone else want to come out of the closet?


(1) With the decrease in the use of etymologies in school dictionaries, and in their provision of pronunciation guides (How, then, can they be called Dictionaries?)  it is even more difficult for the learner surrounded by non-Standard forms to track the deep links between form change, meaning change, and pronunciation change.


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