Pompous, Petty Pedantry

Occasionally, someone will show me an article, tweet, blog post, or other piece of media where some God of the Mount Olympus of Correctness blasts someone else (or a lot of someone elses) for daring to use language incorrectly.  Such articles run the gamut from smug to downright insufferable, and they are usually written with just enough flashy, stylish confidence that they seem more than superficially clever.  When my friends show them to me or post them to Facebook and say, “Thinking of Jill,” I try to separate what I have to believe (or hope to believe) is a compliment to my love for and respect for language from the apparent belief that I will be entertained by the shaming of some hapless person whose only sin is USING LANGUAGE WRONG.

I hate these pieces.

Here’s why I hate them in two short vignettes from my own life:

First story: Last year, I spoke at a conference to a packed room that was lively and responsive.  They laughed at my jokes, they participated in my unorthodox, somewhat interactive presentation, we all had fun.  There were a couple of hair-raising moments where I had to improvise, quickly sketching out something that would have been demonstrated in a video clip that wouldn’t load.  Afterward, people came up to me and said how much they enjoyed it.  Considering how much time and effort a colleague (who couldn’t join me in the actual presentation) and I had put in, it was extremely gratifying.

Then this gentleman came up to me and said, “I have to tell you how much I enjoyed your presentation, but I also have to say – you said ‘cite to’ – which is redundant. You should have just said ‘cite.'”  The glow of my pleasure dimmed a little.  I felt abashed and slightly ashamed, even though this had occurred during the moments I was covering for the video that did not play and I had been ad-libbing madly, laying the tracks of my speech just ahead of the oncoming train.  His comment, much as I tried to put it in context, stuck in my craw in the way that the one negative comment in a sea of positives always will.

Second story: Today I tweeted:

I was still riding the high of the truly inventive, hilarious show John and I had seen the night before.  I loved that show – I would see it again in a heartbeat.  I want as many people as possible to see it because I think it is Shakespeare for everyone: people who love Shakespeare, people who are afraid of Shakespeare, people who have never thought that Shakespeare could be for them.  Imagine my chagrin when I saw this reply:  

Again, I felt abashed and the glow of my pleasure was dimmed a bit, similar to the first story.  I was also irritated – why the hell does this guy even care?  Then I looked him up and realized, oh – he’s a drama critic.  This definition is crucial to his amour propre as a professional.

Two thoughts on this one:

First thought: If I had been a newcomer to theatre or to Shakespeare, instead of a lifelong participant in theatre as an audience member, a crew member, and an actor, I might have shrunk from ever seeing another show again.  After all, here’s a professional telling me YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.  Shakespeare is scary enough for enough people, after all, that it doesn’t take a lot to spook a person.  But in a context where live theatre in general isn’t exactly booming, I would gently suggest that picking irrelevant nits isn’t the best way to be an ambassador, especially for someone whose livelihood depends on a thriving theatre community.

Second thought: If I am anything, I am a librarian. So after having this grit of pedantry in my shoe for a while, I looked up “opening night,” because I’ve never heard of a more specific definition of this term than “the first night where people pay full price to see a show” (in other words, the performance after rehearsals and previews) and it suddenly occurred to me, “Is this dude even right?“ Every single definition that I was able to find (including in the Oxford English Dictionary) was merely this:

opening night n. the first night of a play, film, etc.

Now… was he wrong? I don’t know. There may be, somewhere, a definition of “opening night” that is more specific than the one I repeatedly found  (interestingly enough, my hardbound Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the term).  But the point is, neither was I wrong, and I certainly wasn’t wrong as a member of the audience hoi polloi who might not be expected to know the intricacies of professional usage in a specific context.

People like to treat language like math or a game – there are absolute rules of right and wrong and moreover there are points to be scored.  I find both approaches frankly tedious, but per my first thought above, I also think it’s dangerous.  Similar to experiencing theatre, people need to play with language to learn it and to love it.  If you hem them in and constantly tell them, “YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG” they will cease to love playing with language and that would be a shame.  Or worse.

If you have an age to read something more erudite on the subject, please see Stephen Fry’s essay here, or this kinetic typography video:

And of course there is always XKCD:


  1. New post: Pompous, Petty Pedantry http://t.co/jqQVL6kdyd

  2. Was this a hard post to proofread? This is what has stopped me from writing a post like this before. But really, if everyone would honestly ask before hitting post, “Am I posting this because this person wants to know this or because it makes me look smart?” most of these problems would be solved. That said, if you eschew the Oxford comma, you are dead to me.

    • You know, it was as hard a post to proofread as any because every time I think I have a handle on language and usage, some other authority tells me something like, “Everyone says you can’t do X because X is wrong, but here are eleventeen Great Authors of the Canon who did X all the time.” But yes, my criteria for good writing these days are: 1. do they have a point? 2. is it made reasonably clearly? If the person writes stylishly that can be great, but if they have nothing to say or they are being disingenuous, I am not impressed.

      I am always trying to make peace with the idea that people don’t appreciate the Oxford Comma. It may be a lifetime study.

  3. It really bugs me when half the comments to an online article are pointing out a typo or some real or perceived crime of grammar. Get a life, asshats. I can’t believe the dude who corrected you for “opening night.” Asshat. I bet he made up that definition and is hoping it catches on so he can get his name in wikipedia or something.

  4. @WritingOrTyping regarding the importance of language and how some unfortunately use it to score points at http://t.co/GsfJVl0R0D #culture

  5. @FolgerLibrary @petermarksdrama I was not able to find support for that def – you may be right, but does it matter? http://t.co/ijwnefBGTW

  6. @JenniferRNN EXACTLY. This is just someone being all nose in the air. See also, this: https://t.co/JBGzcoK6SO

  7. @SuperWriterMom @SpoolandThimble I was so steamed up I wrote a blog post about it (and asked several of my friends… https://t.co/ai2jb2CRgn