Piss Off, Pedants

Don't you just want to slap him in his smug face?

The following is inspired by @BobbleBardsley challenging me to write 200 words or fewer on grammar-dinosaurs.

There’s no excuse for pedantry.

At least there’s no excuse for pedantry at the expense of clarity.

A staid and stolid adherence to archaic rules laid down by English teachers isn’t something to be proud of. It’s something that can leave your writing dull, uninspiring and uninteresting.

But that isn’t what you want.

So throw out the grammar guides, and embrace English as a living language. And piss off the pedants into the bargain.

Great Techniques That Piss Off Pedants

Starting a Sentence with And or But – “One shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction”. Unless you want to grab a reader’s attention. Which you do. Right?

Less, Not Fewer – Do your audience see a problem with using less? If they shop at supermarkets they won’t. So don’t sweat it.

Contractions – Over-zealous editors don’t like it when you don’t use do not. Casual readers just like the conversational tone a contraction conveys.

Acronyms – No matter how familiar your audience is with the material or subject, some people want you to write everything out in full. They should STFU.

So, what grammatical rules do you gleefully abandon? Or do you think there’s really a place for pedantry?

20 Comments comments for "Piss Off, Pedants"

  1. I dated a rather fiery young lady with a temper a few years back. We’d argue over inconsequential things. Like me wanting to go out to the pub with my friends. Or her being engaged to someone else.

    But I digress.

    One evening she said: “We’d have less arguments if you weren’t so pedantic.”
    “Fewer arguments, sweetheart. We’d have fewer arguments,” I said.

    Suffice to say, we’re not dating any more.

    True story.

  2. Nicely done! I think any fan of grammar probably has their own pet hates – but as you say, it’s about knowing when to sidestep the rules for the sake of more compelling copy.

    Personally I do tend to stick to using ‘fewer’ for count nouns, but if it made the copy less accessible and the website in question was for a mass audience of tabloid-newspaper reading ability, I wouldn’t beat myself up over using ‘less’.

    It’s all about using the right words in the right context – right?

  3. r44m says:

    there’s a fine line between pedantry and nit-picking. i am a nerd for spelling i.e. your v you’re, they’re v their v there etc. in the english language words spelt differently are pronounced the same way and it’s important to spell things correctly.

    • Andrew says:

      If I’d not have stuck to my ridiculous self-imposed 200 word limit, I was going to say that even though I can’t abide grammar pedantry, I’m almost obsessed with correct spellings.

      It’s all about clarity – grammar isn’t always essential for clarity, but spelling is.

  4. I try to ensure that a proofreader checks my work before it goes to a client, sometimes one just can’t see the wood for the trees… however I do spend a lot of time trying to justify why some of my sentences start with because, but, and etc. to her.

    Old school proofreading vs new school copywriting

    Who is to say which is correct… but I can’t abide poor grammar!

  5. B. Ligerent says:

    Three cheers for this post. Sometimes I just want to smack the pedants in the forehead with my dangling modifier.

    We should write to communicate, write to make an impact. There’s no point in approaching copywriting (or nearly any form of modern writing) like you’re composing an essay during the Victorian era.

  6. Katie Saxon says:

    Totally agree with you! It drives me mad when people start being all pedantic* – live a little, English is a changing and living language, and that’s what makes it so rich and varied. Seems odd that people are happy to accept new meanings for words but get their knickers in a twist about petty grammatical rules.

    Generally speaking, if it sounds right, I go with it.

    *Especially on my movie podcast of choice, Kermode & Mayo’s film reviews. The weekly grammar lesson is ruining my dose of film-related rants.

  7. Ben Locker says:

    People who whinge about the Oxford comma need shooting. It’s a stupid non-rule.

  8. Clair says:

    I had this issue when writing some copy for a client the other day. I couldn’t decide between the grammatically correct ‘money-back’ or the aesthetically pleasing ‘moneyback’ – I went for the latter, so yes, pants to pedantry!

  9. Absolutely spot on, Andy. I’d chuck in splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. Both are perfectly acceptable. The most popular post on my blog was about ignoring these pointless ‘rules’. The more you insist on following them, the clunkier your writing is going to be.

  10. Shelley says:

    There’s a difference between making a choice not to do something, and not doing that same thing because you don’t know any better.

    I definitely agree that we don’t need to adhere to all the rules encapsulated in that horrid thing known as “grammar”. But, we need to know the rules. If we don’t know the rules, we’re not being creative, we’re only being crappy.

  11. Clare Lynch says:

    Hear, hear! Anyone who’s afraid to split an infinitive or start a sentence with a co-ordinating conjunction doesn’t understand that we write and read with our ears as much as our eyes.

    But I have to admit, I winced at the lack of subject-verb agreement in your “do your audience”, even though it was a perfectly understandable sentence.

    According to Kingsley Amis, we all draw the line differently. On one side of that line are ignorant “berks” and on the other pedantic “wankers” (see this great post on The Economist’s Johnson blog:http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/06/correctness).

    I guess my wincing at “do your audience” would make me a wanker in your eyes.

  12. Word Bomber says:

    Pedants have their uses: it’s always handy to have an authority on something when you need it. But effective communication transcends all the rules. Like Neo in The Matrix, or something.

  13. Sam says:

    I’ll admit to being a bit of a pedant. As the old saying goes, an apostrophe is the difference between a firm that knows its shit and one that knows it’s shit :-)

    I’m probably guilty of a load of errors, but I think ostensibly pointless rules do have their uses!

    Here’s my take on it: http://samelfer.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/punctuation-pedants-of-the-world-unite/

  14. Jo Murphy says:

    It’s the difference between choosing to sidestep the rules with purpose and not even knowing they’re there. And, for the record, I like an Oxford comma.

  15. I think it depends on why you’re abusing the rules. If it’s for an impact and you think it makes a difference, go for it. If you’re doing it because you don’t know the rules or just for the sake of breaking them, then that’s probably going to shine through.

    From your list at the bottom: I hate sentences that start with ‘but’ as that word never adds anything or changes the sentence, it’s just an empty word; some of the audience does see a problem with using ‘less’ in place of ‘fewer’, why purposely upset them?; I’m all in favour of contractions; I think the fact that you’ve linked STFU to a definition speaks volumes.

  16. Vernessa says:

    I’d have to agree with other commenters here on a few points:

    * Know the rules before breaking them
    * Use a dictionary to avoid misspellings
    * Please (please!) use the proper form of your/you’re and similar terms
    * And put that apostrophe in when it needs to be there! (its, it’s)

    I don’t consider any of that pedantic.

    On the other side of the scale is gleefully breakin’ the rules for impact, comprehension, and audience pleasure.

    You’ll find me in the camp that fits the situation. Thanks for an interesting little read …

  17. David K says:

    On the whole I agree with all of that. Language is a living, evolving thing and the successful communicators know how to play with it. Sometimes breaking the rules is all part of the communication process – it’s not just about flow, it’s also about creating a meaningful impact by breaking out of the accepted and familiar – just like poetry. Shakespeare is held aloft by the very people who stick unwaveringly to the rules, yet in his own day he was a huge innovator in terms of language use.

    Where I’d throw in a caveat is to say it depends on the audience. For certain products and services the target market is much more likely to be irked by deviations from the norm, so it’s wiser to wear your Norm anorak than be a deviant.

    That’s why I wouldn’t have included less/fewer on the list. It’s surprising how many people are still riled by that and Waitrose gets it right for a reason.

  18. AIGC says:

    Ignorance of the law is no defence – if we are in a position in which we know the rules, but choose to bend them for literary effect, that’s great. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people do not know the basic rules, and constant repetition of elementary mistakes does nothing to remedy the situation.

    Having said that, there’s an important element in play, here; people are stupid, but a person is intelligent. Dumbing-down an article because one believes the readers won’t get it is irresponsible. Why not give a person correct grammar, and see how they cope with it? It’s hardly going to confuse them, and constant repetition of the correct form will eventually rub off. In fact, it’s probably the best way to learn it, especially if you don’t think you’re learning at the time.

    I’d question the abilities of anyone who said, “I use incorrect grammar because my readers do”. What a cop-out!

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