Pedantry is not its own reward – and it’s certainly not ours!

Pedant 1Pedantry is alluring. Especially if one gets some aesthetic satisfaction from the way words are used. Take “begs the question” for instance. I love this term because it is such a simple, chummy way of naming something that’s maddening in is subtlety. To beg the question in its traditional meaning is to mistake the form of answering a question for its substance. One ‘answers’ the question by simply asking it again in another guise.

This can be the product of deliberate deception. But in my experience, and in some ways more maddeningly questions are begged more often by people deceiving themselves. They conclude their ‘explanation’ with great satisfaction, blissfully unaware that their explanation is no explanation at all. Here’s an example of begging the question – which involves answering a question by asserting its premise in different words.  From Wikipedia.

To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.

Today, ‘begs the question’ is much more often used to mean ‘prompts the question’. “The minister says he wasn’t at the lunch, which begs the question ‘Where was he?'” This was a mistake a few decades ago. It pisses me off that it’s not still a mistake. But there you go. Language moves on. A small aesthetic diminishment of the language and that’s it. I don’t use ‘begs the question’ in this way that I dislike but I don’t pull people up on it either. Language is a socially given thing.

I recall a friend of my father’s objecting to the world ‘hopefully’ as in ‘hopefully nothing bad will happen to us’. If you think about it, other than its familiarity, this usage is a bit odd. Because it’s an adverb with an absent verb [I’m no great shakes at grammar so I won’t be surprised if someone corrects anything in this last sentence]. The more logical way to put it is “we are hopeful that nothing bad will happen to us”. But here’s the thing – well two things really:

  1. These horses have bolted so we need to get on with our lives
  2. Their cost can be almost entirely restricted to the aesthetic

But there’s a long tradition of schoolmarmish finger-wagging about precisely this kind of thing as occurred in this Age column by Stephen Downes. The author takes exception to people using the word ‘multiple’ to mean ‘many’. Like ‘hopefully’, I can see the logic in his point, but so what? I use the word in the way he deplores. With him having pointed it out, I might take to the aesthetic of being more pernickety about it. But so what? Others certainly won’t so it’s a lost battle already and, much more to the point a battle that’s hardly worth anything.

After the finger-wagging in Downes’ column George Orwell is inevitably trotted out warning that sloppy language is a step towards the gulag. The thing about George Orwell is that he was writing about something very serious which is the control of language by power, about certain idioms that render the things that need to be said unsayable. As he said – or words to this effect – the creation of a situation where speaking the truth becomes a revolutionary act.

I can give you an example. I was collaborating on a two-page explanatory memo for an enterprising bureaucrat somewhere in the world who was keen on explaining my idea of an Evaluator General. I wrote that it was to “nurture and protect a culture of truth-telling”. But she wouldn’t have it. “We can’t say that”, she said. You’ve probably already guessed why not. Because it implied that there wasn’t a culture of truth-telling. And truth-telling was already hot and strong in the agency she worked for. Why it was in the corporate values (OK: I made that last bit up, but it may well have been in the corporate values.) The point was, she didn’t feel comfortable writing that in the briefing. That illustrates in simple and concrete terms, Orwell’s point – and the power of Orwell’s point. We’re dealing with a serious and difficult subject which, if we are to give it its due, will make demands on us.

In any event, if people are going to wag their finger to talk about good writing, as Stephen Downes does, they could surely give us some good writing. They should surely make the case with some compelling worked examples leaving us thinking – ‘yes this matters and now I know why’. Is this vivid?

Using multiple is just one way in which the media is diluting its impact. If journalists’ writing was more succinct, more articulate and more consistent grammatically, it might also be more powerful. When – not, “At a time when”, you’ll notice – governments, commerce and organisations of all sorts are stifling the truth, writing with bite is the only antidote.

That paragraph is actually hard to take in. The beginning of the last sentence needs to be read several times – at least I had to read it several times. But that’s not my main objection – which is that it makes a claim about “writing with bite”, proposes it as an antidote but the writing is sloppy and vague. Not much bite! In this piece, I try to explain with a precise example what I object to about a corporate value that specifies “honesty in all we do and say” and try to show how that statement itself becomes the apex deception. As I put it:

There’s something creepy about calls from on high for “honesty in all that we do and say” while the routine deceptions of everyday life, both petty and otherwise, proceed apace.

Well, apologies for my tastelessness in quoting myself as a good example – I’m short on time. Commenters can no doubt offer much better examples – there are plenty in Orwell. Don Watson is hilarious and fun – my attempt at ridicule is here – but also a bit disappointing.  Satirising something has some value in itself as social action. It can also be implicitly forensic. Watson’s stuff is brilliantly, hilariously written of course, but it left me a bit disappointed for not homing in on its quarry with sufficiently forensic analysis.

But spare me the finger-wagging without a cause. Downes’ concrete examples of what he anathematises all end up in the same place. After ‘multiples’ we get the use of surplus words and expressions like ‘now’.1 Then we get a nice general wave of the arms:

Weak writing means feeble thinking. Yes, we know what the writer meant in the sentences above. But in writing badly, he or she is signalling a lack of interest in precision, in lightening the readers’ load, in conveying meaning. She’s telling readers that she doesn’t care enough to pick the most powerful verbs, call things by their proper names and write her words in the correct order, the most common characteristics of weak prose. Poor writing also demonstrates to the powerful – to politicians, big business, lobbyists and the malevolent – that we don’t care enough about our thoughts and ideas to aim them accurately. They are easily deflected.

Thoughtful writing is strong and eloquent. I doubt that it has ever been needed more.


It’s two stars from me (and three and a half from Margaret).

  1. “We write skill sets and drought conditions. Why, when skills and drought do the job? The words ‘all’, ‘any’ and ‘location’ are almost never needed, yet we read them time and again.
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21 Responses to Pedantry is not its own reward – and it’s certainly not ours!

  1. Alan says:

    I have a problem with a common phrase and here’s why. Adding ‘here’s why’ to the title of headlines and articles, or to sentences, tells us nothing and here’s why. The phrase is just surplus words that should never be used and here’s why not.

  2. paul frijters says:

    what a fantastic cartoon to illustrate the subject.

  3. Nicholas
    Good poetry precisely links, images, to ,evoke a state of mind. Hard to beat the study of it as a way of learning to communicate.
    For example

    The Sleepout

    Childhood sleeps in a verandah room
    in an iron bed close to the wall
    where the winter over the railing
    swelled the blind on its timber boom

    and splinters picked lint off warm linen
    and the stars were out over the hill;
    then one wall of the room was forest
    and all things in there were to come.

    Breathings climbed up on the verandah
    when dark cattle rubbed at the corner
    and sometimes dim towering rain stood
    for forest, and the dry cave hunched woollen.

    Inside the forest was lamplit
    along tracks to a starry creek bed
    and beyond lay the never-fenced country,
    its full billabongs all surrounded

    by animals and birds, in loud crustings,
    and sometimes kept leaping up amongst them.
    And out there, to kindle whenever
    dark found it, hung the daylight moon.
    The Daylight Moon, 1987

    BTW is there a term for questions that are really assertions of ‘fact : the cliche example is ‘ have you stoped beating your wife?’

    • Simon Musgrave says:

      Wikipedia treats this under the name ‘loaded question’. In semantics, it is dealt with as part of the problem of presupposition: “Condition that has to be fulfilled for a sentence to be either true or false. The sentence has no truth value if the presupposition fails to hold” (Glottopedia)

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      With loaded questions one useful trick is to answer in the future tense.
      “have you stopped beating your wife”
      “I hope to”

      … hope to what? Manage to stop existing beatings? Start beating so you can stop? Obtain an unbeatable wife? I used to give my de facto wife thorough thrashings on a regular basis… she never really got the hang of “Settlers of Catan” :)

      It’s joyfully ambiguous, but sadly vulnerable to the daily hate crowd.

  4. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    a bit semantic 😂

  5. Simon Musgrave says:

    Nice post!
    ‘hopefully’ is an adverb, the problem (for some people anyway) is that English has two kinds of adverbs and ‘hopefully’ can be used in both ways. One kind of adverb tells us about how an action is carried out (He screamed wildly) and the other kind tells us something about the speaker’s attitude to the proposition (Possibly he screamed). Most English adverbs fall into one class or the other; hopefully does double duty. It can be used to tell us about how an action is being carried out (She searched hopefully for the missing piece) or it can give attitudinal information (Hopefully, she searched for the missing piece – I can get both meanings from this, but the attitudinal one is strongly preferred for me).
    The other side of the problem is not letting the search for strong and eloquent language become more important than taking full responsibility for our words. Which of us has not sometime chosen words which work well but obscure some nuance of which we are aware?

  6. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    The point about public displays of pedantry is generally less about correctness and more about either displays of power “it is thus because I say it is” or misdirection “the peasants are revolting”.

    You might also want to poke a pedantic toe into the fatberg that is singluar they… or worse, the revival of archaic pronouns as neopronouns and the linguistic peculiarity that term represents in that context. Viz, is a mistaken pedant really a pedant, or just an arrogant dick? And if the latter, how do they differ from any other pedant ;)

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Moz, but I didn’t understand what you meant when you said this

      “revival of archaic pronouns as neopronouns”.

      Verily forsooth ;)

      • Moz of Yarramulla says:

        Singular “they” is the simple/canonical example, it’s both archaic *and* being criticised for being a neopronoun. Ye can’t hae both.

        The ge set are my main example, found in old english then somewhat expanded because we use a larger set of pronouns now (ge / ger / gis / gis / gerself; ge / gem / gems / gemself; ge / gel/ gel / gels / gelself). I’m told by a linguist that the xe/xir/xou set are also possibly plausible translations from thorn (þ which became Y, leading to ‘ye olde’). Prounciation and spelling is not traditionally that rigorously enforced, and there’s a risk of ending up speaking Cornish :)

      • Moz of Yarramulla says:

        Sorry, an actual answer: what I meant was “some of the allegedly ‘newly made up’ pronouns that various reactionaries are upset about are actually deliberately taken from older forms of English”.

        The reaction often takes the form of a retreat into strict linguistic prescriptivism to an inconsistent degree (people who use words like Ms, for example, or say ‘the Queen’ rather than ‘Her Royal Highness’).

  7. John Quiggin says:

    The problem with the old use of “begs the question” is that it makes no sense. It’s a literal translation of “petitio principii”. The problem is that “question” here means “conclusion” and “begs” means something like “asks the listener to assume”. The modern use is also nonsensical. My solution is to use
    “offers a circular argument” for the old use and “raises the question” for the new one.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      So I don’t understand why it’s nonsensical. “Asks the listener to assume the conclusion” makes sense to me.

      • John Quiggin says:

        How do you get from “begs the question” to Asks the listener to assume the conclusion” unless you already know the meaning, which effectively begs the question of interpretation.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well language works with precisely such shortcuts coming to have their own meaning and force in situ.

    So for me ‘begs the question’ means precisely ‘[does not escape and so returns to or] begs the question’.

  9. Wondering how you would classify the following.

    There is a ,probably apocryphal ,story that goes;

    A man asked the Buddha ‘can women enter Nirvana?’

    The Buddha remained silent .
    After quite sometime had passed one of the Buddha’s disciples said to the man ,
    you should have first asked:
    ‘can the Buddha ,or anybody else ,prevent women from entering Nirvana ?’

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    It’s an oblique exchange which I guess is to be expected from Buddha. It’s also not a direct answer to the question. But it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with pedantry.

  11. Fence Sacramento says:

    Haha! Pendantry. Funny. Love this and love the comic as well.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    A bunch of plausible looking comments have been removed. They were the next generation of spam in which a word is taken – in this case ‘pedantry’ and something plausible is written but it’s all to improve the SEO of a windscreen supplier.

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