How to be a pedant

March 25, 2011

Question: Who led the pedants’ revolt?

Answer: Which Tyler.  Anonymous

Pedantic, I? Alexei Sayle

When nature exceeds culture, we have the rustic. When culture exceeds nature then we have the pedant.  Confucius

The meaning of the word pedant, which comes to us via the Old French pédant, is inevitably subjective. Pedagogue and pedant share the same etymological root.  To understand what pedantry is, it is helpful to define what it is not.  Pedantry is not erudition. It is not a love of the beauty of language or a desire to discover or share knowledge. Of course exactitude can be very necessary.  We want scientists to be very precise – hair splitting is a virtue in the lab. I wouldn’t want a lawyer with a slapdash attitude to words and their meanings Newspaper editors should be strict about what goes into the pages of their publications. Although, as I argued in my post about the use of maths in the media, I wish they would be more careful about publishing dodgy statistics as well. If you are applying for a job, you will probably need to wear formal clothes for the interview and use formal language in your CV and any correspondence. All that is fine. However, pedantry is something very different.  What characterises pedants is their sense of superiority. They want to show off their knowledge and intellect and they are incapable of taking context into account. They always have to insist on correct grammar and spelling. They will demand the facts even if they are unimportant. 

Having said all this, being a pedant can be great fun. So now I am going to show you my pedantic side. Here is my guide on how to be a pedant: 

Pedantry in language

RAS syndrome In the Business Result Intermediate textbook they repeatedly use that old classic, PIN number. This is an example of RAS syndrome, which is short for redundant acronym syndrome syndrome. This usually involves the repetition of one of the words that make up an acronym e.g. personal identification number number. The other common RAS syndrome mistake is ATM machine (automated teller machine machine).

Plurals Plurals also give pedants a chance to strut their stuff. For example Taliban is plural; the singular form of the noun is Talib. This is similar to Paparazzi. When referring to one, you should say paparazzo.

Begging the question Begging the question does not mean raising the question. In fact, begging the question comes from philosophy and means employing circular reasoning. Here is an example

 A:  God must exist.

B: How do you know?

A:  Because the Bible says so.

B:  Why should I believe the Bible?

A:  Because the Bible was written by God.

Pop pedantry

Pop music is rich source of material for pedants.  

Transitive verbs Bob Dylan may be a poet, but in his song Lay Lady Lay he seems to be unaware that lay requires an object

Me, myself I In Run to You that other great poet Brian Adams was trying  too hard when he sang: “But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I.”  Paul Simon tried to use me as the subject; it should have been “Julio and I down by the schoolyard.”

Relative clauses Country singer Lee Greenwood has a patriotic ditty, God Bless the U.S.A., in which he declares “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” American is a nationality not a place. He could have said “I’m proud to be in America, where at least I know I’m free” or “I’m proud to be an American, for at least I know I’m free“.

Prepositions In Live and Let Die Paul McCartney rather overdid the prepositions:  “In this ever changin’ world in which we live in

Their is plural Stacy Ann Ferguson aka Fergie, who also sings with The Black Eyed Peas, committed this faux pas in Big Girls Don’t Cry :  “And I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket.”  I do feel sympathy here – I like the impersonal they. One solution would have been to have made child plural.

It’s not ironic Finally we have Alanis Morissette and her song Ironic. It deals with rain on weddings days, dropping dead before being able to collect your lottery winnings or and being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re late. These situations could be considered coincidence, bad luck or a disappointment but none of them are remotely ironic. Comedian Ed Byrne does a brilliant hatchet job on the song, which he claims should have been called “Unfortunate.” Indeed, as Byrne points out the only ironic thing about the song is that it is called ironic and it was written by someone who doesn’t have the faintest conception of what irony is.

Comedian George Carlin seems to have a better grasp of what irony is:

If a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony. If a Kurd, after surviving bloody battle with Saddam Hussein’s army and a long, difficult escape through the mountains, is crushed and killed by a parachute drop of humanitarian aid, that, my friend, is irony writ large.

There are also songs with important factual errors:

African fauna The wrier of that classic The Lion Sleeps Tonight is obviously no expert on African fauna – Lions don’t sleep in jungles.

Geographical errors And in Smooth Operator Sade showed that she must have been asleep in her geography class: Coast to coast, LA to Chicago.”

In her song Nine Million Bicycles Katie Melua made a number of errors:

We are 12 billion light-years from

the edge,

That’s a guess,

No one can ever say it’s true,

But I know that I will always be

with you.

Fortunately Simon Singh, the British science writer, was able to provide more accurate lyrics. I think you will agree that this version is superior:

We are 13.7 billion light-years from

the edge of the observable universe,

That’s a good estimate with

well-defined error bars,

Scientists say it’s true, but

acknowledge that it may be refined,

And with the available information, I predict that I will always be

with you

Trivia pedant

Maybe Sade and Katie Melua should watch the TV series QI. I find it an excellent source of contrarian facts. . I have to say I did rather enjoy looking at the expression on the face of a French exchange student who was staying at our house, when I told him  that champagne was invented by the English. The records of the Royal Society show, what is now known as the méthode champenoise,  was first written down in England in 1662. The next time someone mentions a sixth sense you can point out that we have at least nine as maybe as many as twenty-one Apart from the usual five we have:

thermoception – the sense of heat (or its absence) on our skin.

equilibrioception – our sense of balance – which is determined by the fluid-containing cavities in the inner ear.

nociception – the perception of pain from the skin, joints and body organs.

proprioception – or ‘body awareness’. This is the unconscious knowledge of where our body parts are without being able to see or feel them.

You could also include hunger, thirst, the sense of depth and the sense of impending danger, when your hair stands on end. I also enjoy informing Spanish people that the Canary Islands were named after dogs and not canaries. The ‘Bayeux Tapestry, which shows the victory of William the Conqueror over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, should really be called the Bayeux Embroidery. A tapestry is a heavy textile in which the design is woven in as it’s being made on a loom. Embroidery involves stitching decorations on to a piece of existent fabric.  I could go on…

Pedantry is a dangerous condition. If you’re not careful, you could end up like this.

The annual day out for the Pedants Association, or rather Pedants’ Association, took us to the seaside this year. After we had disembarked from the coach, we enjoyed comparing sun-cream factors.

“Mine,” said Mr Little, “Is factor 15. Is yours higher or lower?”

“29,” I said.

“Ah,” said Mr Little, “Twice as high. Well, I say twice as high. It’s actually not quite twice. Now let me see.”

With this, Mr Little brought out his pocket calculator (“Well, they call it a pocket calculator, but in fact it calculates numbers.”) and proceeded to work out the exact fraction. He then went round the other Pedants present, offering to calculate the proportional difference between his sun factor and theirs.

He was soon interrupted by Mr Hamilton. “I could murder an ice lolly,” he said.

“When you say ‘murder’,” began Ms Everett, our Secretary, “are you saying you would participate in an unjustifiable action causing loss of life to the ice lolly in question?”

“No,” replied Mr Hamilton, “I was using the term in the more colloquial sense of ‘to consume with relish’.”

“With relish?” piped up Mr Little, “Are you planning to consume your ice lolly with an accompaniment of condiments? Personally, I’d advise against it, if you ask me – which I acknowledge you haven’t.”

“Can I treat you to an ice-lolly, Ms Everett?” asked Mr Hamilton.

“You MAY treat me to an ice lolly,” replied Ms Everett.

“Would you prefer an ice lolly with a hyphen or without?” asked Mr Hamilton.

We then made our way to the beach…   Craig Brown, I’ll have to look it up. From his Telegraph column.

 I do recommend you check out this rant by Stephen Fry about language pedants.

Pajamahadeen and other new words

March 25, 2011

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

exercise widow

A woman who spends little time with her husband because of his frequent and extended exercise sessions.

gallery rage

Extreme anger displayed by an art gallery patron when a visit is marred by huge crowds or rude gallery staff.


A person who has the same name as you, and whose online references are mixed in with yours when you run a Google search on your name. Also: Google-ganger. [Google + doppelgänger]


An imposingly long building, particularly one that houses a commercial enterprise, such as a factory or hotel.

Lycra lout

An aggressively rude or reckless cyclist.


n. Bloggers who expose errors made by the traditional media; people whose activism consists solely of emails and online posts. [pajama + Mujahadeen]


People whose lives are precarious because they have little or no job security. [Precarious + proletariat.


To resume the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and similar substances after a period of detoxification.

shelter porn

Images and text that glorify or fetishize high-end architecture, home furnishings, and interior design.


The internet splintered into multiple segments, streams, or classes based on factors such as cost, speed, platform, or political motivations.


Unnecessary or inappropriate items donated to a charity organization or relief effort. [From the phrase Stuff WE DOn’t Want.]

tiger mother

A loving but strict mother who demands from her children obedience, respect, and academic excellence.

urban miner

A person or company that extracts metals from discarded electronics.

My media week 27/03/11

March 25, 2011

John Kay looks at the difficult balance of intellectual property.

On EconTalk Russ Roberts interviewed Diane Coyle, author of The Economics of Enough. They talk about debt, the financial sector, and the demographic challenges of an aging population that is promised generous retirement and health benefits.

At John Stossel argues that we should End Corporate Welfare

In the Independent Julian Baggini asks if we really exist: The blurred reality of humanity.

This is all very well in practice, but will it work in theory?*

March 19, 2011

There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. George Orwell

To the man-in-the-street, who,

I’m sorry to say,

Is a keen observer of life,

The word ‘Intellectual’ suggests straight away

A man who’s untrue to his wife.  WH Auden

Now, we must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement, who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early 20th century, for the first time an ordinary story teller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely—this fascinates me—conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual. Tom Wolfe Commencement Address to the Boston University Class of 2000.



I suppose I am a product of a certain type of British worldview, which tends to be suspicious of intellectuals. You have to understand that in Britain to call someone an intellectual is definitely not a compliment. There is a kind of British exceptionalism – We like to think that we don’t do intellectuals. It’s basically “no intellectuals please, we’re British”.  In his 1963 book A State of England Anthony Hartley claimed that “no people has ever distrusted and despised the intellect and intellectuals more than the British.” To understand the mentality we need to compare ourselves to the French. We have cultivated this mythical vision of ourselves as a practical, no-nonsense nation that doesn’t hold with all this Frenchified philosophising. “British intellectual” still seems to be an oxymoron. Part of this opposition is undoubtedly resistance to the label – the very word is irritating. It speaks to us of arrogance, pretentiousness and sophistry. We do not accept the idea of this special caste whose superior knowledge enables them to dispense their wisdom to the masses. This British ambivalence/hostility towards intellectuals goes back at least as far as the French Revolution. Conservative British thinkers like Edmund Burke believed that it was abstract ideas from idealistic philosophers that had sparked the descent into chaos and extreme violence.

Before we go any further we need a working definition of intellectual. The British academic Stefan Collini distinguished between three types of intellectual. The first category, the sociological, is based on occupation and includes writers, journalists, academics and teachers. The second category, the subjective, is more personal and refers to someone interested in ideas, who reads a lot, and generally pursues the life of the mind. The third and final category refers to the cultural intellectual. This type of intellectual is one whose creative, analytical or scholarly achievement gives them ‘cultural authority’. This is the type of intellectual I want to analyse today. In this analysis I have been influenced by Paul Johnson and Thomas Sowell who have both written scathing indictments of intellectuals. There is a course an irony here – they lambast intellectuals and yet they are intellectuals. In his 1988 work Intellectuals Johnson criticised Rousseau for being a sleazebag. This may well be true but for me it is irrelevant. What I am interested in is whether his ideas are accurate. Do they actually work? Sowell’s book, Intellectuals and Society, was published in 2010 I find Sowell too partisan but he does make some telling hits. Here are three of his criticisms:

The first criticism relates to what we mean by knowledge. There are many kinds of knowledge diffused throughout society. Much of this knowledge may not be high-powered stuff, but that does not make it inconsequential. This has been a constant theme in my blog. This was the big problem of the Soviet Union. They thought that the intelligentsia could run the economy from on high, but those experts didn’t know as much as the citizens on the ground whose knowledge they were overriding.

The second criticism is that while intellectuals have special knowledge in their narrow area of expertise, this does not mean that they have any special understanding beyond this. In science we can see the dangers of abandoning what you know. Real scientists tend to have their expertise in a single area of science. There are brilliant Nobel Laureates who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of science. A case in point is that of Linus Pauling, one of the first scientists to work in the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Later in his career he created a pseudoscience, Orthomolecular Biology. Pauling proposed that megadoses of vitamin C could effectively treat several illnesses, most notably cancer and the common cold. Advocates of this pseudoscience claimed that their findings were being suppressed by a conspiracy of mainstream medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. The tragedy is that bad ideas can have terrible consequences; Matthias Rath, a former associate of Linus Pauling, accused Big Pharma of poisoning patients with their HIV medication. In 2005 his foundation distributed pamphlets in poor black South African townships urging HIV-positive people to use vitamins, such as the ones he was selling, to treat HIV/AIDS. Scientists are not the only ones who can overextend themselves. I remember a Craig Brown anecdote about Gore Vidal. The American author was being interviewed and was speaking with apparent expertise and great authority about the British secret services. However, Brown rapidly became disillusioned when Vidal began talking about “M-Fifteen” and ‘“M-Sixteen.” Maybe he was an expert on British motorways!

The final criticism refers to the accountability of intellectuals. It was HL Mencken who argued that science was fundamentally anti-intellectual because it distrusted pure reason, and demanded the production of objective fact. If you design a bridge and it collapses, you have failed. In the marketplace if you make a mistake, you will pay a heavy price. That is of course, if you are not too big to fail. However, many of those who are called intellectuals live in a world with no such accountability. The world of ideas is by its nature different. Intellectuals are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or how they resonate with the media and the public.

Ideas are important and those who create and disseminate them have an impact on society that goes way beyond their actual numbers. Who could have imagined the impact a German émigré beavering away at the British library would have? But Karl Marx’s ideas went on to change the world. The Ronald Reagan revolution was preceded by the work of many conservative intellectuals. This John Maynard Keynes quote seems relevant here: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Have intellectuals made the world a better place? A glance at the historical record should make anyone sceptical about their role.  Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s enthusiastically lauded the Soviet Union, while man-made famines wreaked havoc on the countryside and millions languished in the gulags. In the early years of the Cold War, historian Professor A.J.P. Taylor argued that Britain should ally herself with the Soviet Union against the United States. Chairman Mao also had a fan club among the intelligentsia. I recently heard Tony Benn say that Mao’s legacy was important in China’s current prosperity. Harold Pinter was a founder of a private discussion group, the June 20th Society, whose members included his wife,  Antonia Fraser, Ian McEwan, Michael Holroyd, John Mortimer, Salman Rushdie and Germaine Greer, writers who generally opposed Thatcherism. With great self-importance and no sense of perspective Pinter declared: ‘We have a precise agenda and we are going to meet again and again until they break the windows and drag us out’. What annoys me is that these people are accorded great respect, as if they possessed magical powers to interpret society.

We may say we are anti-intellectual but British exceptionalism has been exaggerated.  Britain has a rich intellectual tradition on both the left and the right.  A country that has produced Adam Smith, David Hume, Edmund Burke John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, George Orwell and Roger Scruton has nothing to feel ashamed about. Nowadays the BBC has programmes like In Our Time, Start the Week and Night Waves. If you prefer the printed word, you have Prospect Magazine, The London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. And online you can listen to podcasts from the LSE or the RSA. I am not anti-intellectual. The notion that you can teach intelligent design in a science class horrifies me. I find Sarah Palin frightening. I am in favour of the debate of ideas. However, historical evidence suggests we should treat intellectuals’ pronouncements with a megadose of scepticism.

*Apocryphal remark made by a French diplomat to his British counterpart.

The Top 100 Public Intellectuals Poll

March 19, 2011

The Top 100 Public Intellectuals Poll was conducted in November 2005 and June 2008 by Prospect Magazine (UK) and Foreign Policy (US) on the basis of responding readers’ ballot. The objective was to determine the 100 most important public intellectuals that are still alive and active in public life. The following appeared on the 2008 list:

1.         Fethullah Gulen

2.         Muhammad Yunus

3.         Yusuf al-Qaradawi

4.         Orhan Pamuk

5.         Aitzaz Ahsan

6.         Amr Khaled

7.         Abdolkarim Soroush

8.         Tariq Ramadan

9.         Mahmood Mamdani

10.       Shirin Ebadi

11.       Noam Chomsky

12.       Al Gore

13.       Bernard Lewis

14.       Umberto Eco

15.       Ayaan Hirsi Ali

16.       Amartya Sen

17.       Fareed Zakaria

18.       Garry Kasparov

19.       Richard Dawkins

20.       Mario Vargas Llosa

21.       Lee Smolin

22.       Jürgen Habermas

23.       Salman Rushdie

24.       Sari Nusseibeh

25.       Slavoj Žižek

26.       Václav Havel

27.       Christopher Hitchens

28.       Samuel Huntington

29.       Peter Singer

30.       Paul Krugman

31.       Jared Diamond

32.       Pope Benedict XVI

33.       Fan Gang

34.       Michael Ignatieff

35.       Fernando Henrique Cardoso

36.       Lilia Shevtsova

37.       Charles Taylor

38.       Martin Wolf

39.       E.O. Wilson

40.       Thomas Friedman

41.       Bjørn Lomborg

42.       Daniel Dennett

43.       Francis Fukuyama

44.       Ramachandra Guha

45.       Tony Judt

46.       Steven Levitt

47.       Nouriel Roubini

48.       Jeffrey Sachs

49.       Wang Hui

50.       V.S. Ramachandran

51.       Drew Gilpin Faust

52.       Lawrence Lessig

53.       J.M. Coetzee

54.       Fernando Savater

55.       Wole Soyinka

56.       Yan Xuetong

57.       Steven Pinker

58.       Alma Guillermoprieto

59.       Sunita Narain

60.       Anies Baswedan

61.       Michael Walzer

62.       Niall Ferguson

63.       George Ayittey

64.       Ashis Nandy

65.       David Petraeus

66.       Olivier Roy

67.       Lawrence Summers

68.       Martha Nussbaum

69.       Robert Kagan

70.       James Lovelock

71.       J. Craig Venter

72.       Amos Oz

73.       Samantha Power

74.       Lee Kuan Yew

75.       Hu Shuli

76.       Kwame Anthony Appiah

77.       Malcolm Gladwell

78.       Alexander de Waal

79.       Gianni Riotta

80.       Daniel Barenboim

81.       Therese Delpech

82.       William Easterly

83.       Minxin Pei

84.       Richard Posner

85.       Ivan Krastev

86.       Enrique Krauze

87.       Anne Applebaum

88.       Rem Koolhaas

89.       Jacques Attali

90.       Paul Collier

91.       Esther Duflo

92.       Michael Spence

93.       Robert Putnam

94.       Harold Varmus

95.       Howard Gardner

96.       Daniel Kahneman

97.       Yegor Gaidar

98.       Neil Gershenfeld

99.       Alain Finkielkraut

100.     Ian Buruma

A satellite view of the two Koreas

March 19, 2011

This satellite photo from 2010 shows the two Koreas at night. North Korea is totally dark, except for its capital, Pyongyang. No commentary required.

My media week 20/03/11

March 19, 2011

Michael Blastland explains the history of economic ideas. In the first programme of a three part series, Michael travelled to Athens, where economics as a discipline began.

The BBC website has this excellent essay attacking the fetish for manufacturing. Factories in decline? It’s OK, services will do nicely. If you go to the BBC Business Daily website you can hear the author of the essay, Steve Fritzinger, talking about the topic. The relevant programme was on March 17th and the part by Fritzinger begins at around 13.43.

Here is one of those RSA Animate videos: RSA Animate – The Internet in Society: Empowering and Censoring Citizen?