In Praise of Pedantry: A Pragmatic Plea for Parents and Peers

Mr Stephen Woods, Director of English

As I make my curmudgeonly way through my third decade of teaching, I feel the need not just to stand up for pedants, but to proselytize for more recruits. The label itself is pejorative; to be a pedant — to be pedantic — is to be a nitpicker, tiresome, a know-it-all, or a show-off. I readily admit to sometimes being all of those things, but I actually think that as an English teacher, a bit of linguistic pedantry is part of the job description. I want to argue here that the job of pedantically insisting on verbal correctness is a responsibility which we should all share, and I base this job-share invitation on the irrefutable maxim that it takes a village to raise a child, and slightly more refutable tenet that all good villages have resident pedants.

Here is an illustrative case. A couple of weeks ago I was following my morning routine of listening to the wireless while having breakfast. All was proceeding well toast-wise until the ABC News Radio announcer advised that there was ‘a chance of a possible shower’ for Brisbane later in the day. A chance of a possible shower. To test my suspicions, I pondered whether there could ever be the chance of an impossible shower, and having found that this was itself impossible, I decided that the statement was a tautology, and a pretty egregious one at that. In the same meteorological vein, the recent cyclone emergency saw a public figure intone on television that ‘serious reports of damage’ had been received. I wondered whether they had been expecting comic, satiric, or interpretive dance reports; surely it was the damage that was serious, not the reports?

“Where’s the harm?” you might say. ‘You knew what they meant’, you might opine, and of course you are right. I did understand that there was a chance of a shower, and that damage had occurred, but this is beside the point, which is that my attention — to borrow from Marshall McLuhan — was distracted from the message by its medium. This happens a lot. I missed the content of a recent ABC television news story about an unmanned rocket exploding because the on-screen caption read ‘Disasterous [sic] Launch’. I decided against buying an AMG Mercedes (I have a rich fantasy life) because the Benz website editors can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, so I am loath to trust their employer with my highway safety. I tune out of otherwise riveting interviews and expert commentaries on a daily basis because distractingly skyward inflections at the end of every sentence impede my ability to concentrate on the other, more tonally-appropriate words.

My suggestion that we all get a bit pedantic is prompted not by a fetish for grammar, or by a need to show my own erudition (I do that by using words like ‘erudition’). My plea is based on pragmatism. We are in the business of teaching young women to enter a noisy wider world in which cut-through is hard to achieve, and all the harder for women. We owe it to our girls to help them remove as many impediments as possible to being heard. If we can help them weed out as many distractors, annoyances, and inconsistencies as we can, then maybe those listening to and reading their future words will have no choice but to focus on the message and not the medium. If the medium is transparent, the message stands a better chance of getting through. In English classes we try to make this mission as explicit and concrete as we can, so that the girls see our pedantry not as the ‘judging’ so abhorred by adolescents, but as constructive feed-forward.

There are, of course, some preconditions for pedantry to be a positive, enabling force rather than a destructive, confidence-eroding one. The first of these is that there has to be agreement that getting things right is important. If enough villagers think something matters, then so will that village’s children. Home and peers are powerful educative factors, and if positive pedantry from these quarters is added to the professional version from teachers, then maybe a critical mass of concern for eliminating errors can be reached. The second precondition is that the criticism has to be unmistakably well-intentioned. Research reveals that young language learners respond well to verbal correction and modelling, but adolescents have bigger — and paradoxically more fragile — egos, and are therefore somewhat less biddable.

Parental pedantry can work. Parents actively and consciously shape their children’s language use through overt correction in the early years, but this positive pedantry tends to trail off along with the bedtime reading. On the bus to the Swimming Carnival last week, I happened across some anecdotal evidence that pedantic parents do make a difference. I overheard the girls in the seat behind me talking about . . . well that’s the point, I do not recall the meat or even the gist of what they were saying, because one of the girls referred to an amount of people. Incomprehension of the difference between things that can be counted and things that can’t is endemic in our land, so I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me, and very pleasantly, was that one of the two girls helped me explain the different usage of number and amount to her friend. I complimented her on her syntactic awareness, which she put down to the fact that her mum had explained the difference to her, and had subsequently insisted on correct usage.

I saw positive peer pedantry in action at Open Day last year. Three excellent young Old Girls, now uni students, dropped in to the English display to say hello, and at one point in our conversation, one of them very supportively advised her friend that she had just committed a grammatical faux pas. Long — and sometimes bitter — experience having taught me that not everyone appreciates having their linguistic infelicities constructively critiqued prompted me to ask why she had done so. The pedant’s response was intriguing; the friends had in fact made a pact that they would monitor and offer constructive feedback on each other’s language use whenever they were together. They had decided on this because they want to make sure that they sound as intelligent as they are, and because they know that all villagers can benefit from a bit of well-intentioned coaching. Research indicates that peer feedback can actually be a more powerful factor in improvement than the teacherly variety, which is why I was so chuffed to see this little pedantic sorority in action.

The pragmatic brand of pedantry I am pushing avoids the pedant’s pitfalls of nostalgia and absolutism; I don’t think language use was any better in the olden days, and don’t subscribe to the ‘we’ll all be rooned’ narrative of linguistic decline. I’m an English teacher; trust me on this one. I am also aware that our language is in a constant state of flux (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron), a flag in which many of our girls like to drape themselves when we English teachers point out the inadequacy of ‘relatable’ to describe a character, or the myriad more nuanced alternatives to the fashionable ‘impact’ (as a verb). Things change, and ‘correctness’ is fluid. My gauge is a simple one: if it gets in the way of meaning, or risks foregrounding the expression at the expense of that meaning, it merits a helpful comment. It isn’t nit-picking if it’s motivated by a desire for our girls to be heard. Silence, after all, signifies assent, and offers no chance of a possible improvement.