How to be a pedant

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.

4 Responses to How to be a pedant

  1. Alberto says:

    Not surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed it a lot…

  2. Juan Zancada says:

    Sorry, can’t turn this into a direct link for some reason but, speaking of pedants, it’s worth a cut, copy and view…

  3. Nickdg says:

    Actually, (just to be pedantic) if you accept the old Anglo-Saxon use of “their” as 3rd person possessive, of unknown sex (or should that be gender?) or number, then its use in Big Girls Don’t Cry is perfectly correct!

  4. molivam42 says:

    Nick, I didn’t know the old Anglo-Saxon use of “their” as 3rd person possessive of gender.But I feel it is very necessary. The other solution is to make your subject plural. This is not always possible. I am glad to hear that I now have the authority of traditional use.

    Ian, thanks for the video. I certainly hadn’t seen that for a long time.

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