Pedant - pedantic - pedantry

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Pedant is derived from an Italian word for 'teacher'. Originally, it merely meant a teacher - any teacher. Teaching is - or should be - the most interesting of jobs. Unfortunately, it is in practice associated with boredom, and, in particular, with a too fussy attention to nit-picking details. Such an approach is sometimes called 'schoolmaster-ish'.

  • The word pedant originally had no overtones of meaning. It was neutral. Now, it is no longer neutral. The connotations of pedant are negative. Its meaning - its denotation - is essentially "a person who cares too much about the less important details, while never thinking about the deeper meaning". Guides to usage such as this one run a grave risk of pedantry (the abstract noun) of being pedantic (the adjective). The use of language often inspires academics to be pedantic.

As with so much in the field of writing, this is a matter of judgement, and of style. Academics should be pedants. One of the functions of 'the academy' is to maintain standards of correctness, to be exact - indeed, to be more exact than ordinary people. We academics (not only teachers and stylistic dogsbodies like the editors of AWE, but also students like you for whom this Guide is designed) should be more careful than most people. We should always be accurate. On the other hand, pedantry, fussing and nit-picking can be overdone. Natural language is a human phenomenon. It should have a natural flow to it. All too often, the writing of academic English results in a constipated, unnatural prose that is hard to read.

Strike a balance, in this as in all things!

    • We may perhaps be forgiven for introducing a lighter, if taboo, note by borrowing from journalist Lucy Mangan's twitter thread (@LucyMangan) observing that
      • in Finnish, the word for a pedant is pilkunnussija, translated as ‘comma fucker'
      • in Dutch, the equivalents kommaneuker or mierenneuker mean 'comma- (or ant-) fucker'
      • and the Danish term is flueknepper - 'fly fucker'
        • All of these (and the French enculer les mouches or the synonymous sodomiser les diptères, used in the same sense as the English idiom 'to split hairs') share a similar image, that of a small black punctuation mark compared to a small black insect treated in a ludicrously and impossiblw disrespectful manner. The English nit-picker has a similar image. 'nit' being the colloquial name for the egg of a head-louse.

The German for a pedant is Korinthenkacker, 'someone who shits raisins'.