In Praise of Pedantry
Why we should all be language nerds
My family is inclined to regard me as something of a pain. I know - you’re right. This is profoundly unfair. But sadly, it’s true.
Chief among the aspects of my personality that appears to cause them such discomfort is my perceived linguistic pedantry. My desire for everyone to ‘say it right’ drives them bonkers. (yes, I confess - I do derive wicked pleasure in winding them up).
Language changes - excellent!
But let’s put aside the fun and frivolity of family banter. Let’s look seriously at the idea of grammar nerdery. First, we should make one thing clear. Language is organic. It changes. This is both inevitable and desirable. Inevitable, because as societies evolve, merge and bump up against each other, they will, of course, influence each other’s dialects, accents and ways of expression. Desirable, because diversity is good. Without evolution and change, our cultural veins run dry.
However, resistance to change is natural - more natural in some of us than others. Here’s a quick, relevant digression.
Only the other day, I was delivering a presentation on how to write effective web copy. Before starting, I warned the audience that they might feel uncomfortable with some of my recommendations. “We tend to feel loyalty”, I explained, “towards the rules of writing that we were taught at school.” I suggested that, when we write commercially engaging web copy, it’s best to write in a way that’s relaxed and informal - conversational.
There’s only one L in ‘Til’
The audience seemed happy with this explanation. Except for one - a curmudgeonly cove, slumped at the back of the room, arms firmly folded across his chest, and a scowl planted equally firmly on his face. (I was reminded of Roal Dahl’s vivid description of the hero’s grandmother in George’s Marvelous Medicine, whom he described as having “a puckered-up mouth like a dog's bottom”). At almost every turn, the chap twitched and grunted his displeasure at my recommendations. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. On the screen was a sentence containing the word ‘till’. His arm shot forward. He pointed excitedly. “You’ve spelt it wrong. It should be T-I-L, one ‘L’ only. The word is derived from ‘until’ and, in Victorian times was written ‘til.” With this extraordinary outburst, he had made my point splendidly. The word ‘till’ has indeed evolved over the decades, as have all words. How odd it would be if language had always stood still. Imagine ordering a Prosecco, making a declaration of undying love or arguing the merits of Brexit, using primaeval guttural grunts of many millennia ago.
Less vs Fewer
We all harbour a degree of conservatism within us. It’s natural to resist change, particularly in the field that interests us. A fisherman may resist new-fangled fishing equipment. A traditionalist football nut might push back against the introduction of the latest pitch-side technology. Equally, a lover of language might argue vehemently against new-found words and phrases. I’m no different. I like to preserve the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ - there were fewer people than expected versus there’s less fruit in the bowl than I thought. Of course, ‘less people’ is now pretty much the norm. There are hundreds of other similar examples. But do these changes really matter? ‘Less’ or ‘fewer’? Where’s the harm? The answer is ‘none’. Whichever is used, we understand them equally well. And here we get to the point.
Surely, provided the meaning remains intact, there’s no need to sullenly resent these changes?
Clarity is all
However, there are instances when we should stand resolutely against change. For example - the fairly recent introduction of ‘I was like …’.
“He called me an idiot. I was like, ‘How dare you?!’”.
Is the speaker saying, “I thought, ‘How dare you?’” or is he saying, “I said, ‘How dare you?’”? It’s a big difference, one that really matters, but with ‘I was like’, the meaning is obscured. It’s all about being clear in what we’re trying to say.
Wanted! More practitioners of pedantry
This is why we need more pedants. More of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, resolutely campaigning for clarity. Imagine if we all took more trouble to be clear about what we mean. Imagine how many arguments, fallings-out, fights, battles and yes, possibly, wars would be avoided. We need more of us to campaign for clarity.
Call me what you like - a word nerd, a grammar guardian, a grammar nazi (actually, no. I don’t like that one). For it’s true. I’ve come out. Here I stand - a pedant loud and proud!