Spelling, grammar and punctuation are probably the top things that people most hate having corrected in public. Spend any time at all on social media and, before long, you’ll see someone pulled up on there/their/they’re. An indignant rebuttal will almost certainly follow, and the bystanders will be getting their popcorn out.
What you’ll also notice about social media, however, is that it’s where immediacy takes precedence over accuracy. That’s understandable where being in the moment is what it’s all about. There isn’t time to dot every i, and cross every t, when you’ve a point to make before someone else makes it.
What about in books, though—isn’t literature about creativity? If you’re writing a book, isn’t being creative and imaginative about seizing the immediacy of what comes into your mind? Isn’t retaining that freshness more important than tweaking the detail to the nth degree? What about all the time you’ve spent on the writing process—doesn’t that mean there’s no excuse for mistakes?
Who are these guardians of spelling, grammar and punctuation? Introducing the pedant…
You might have heard of the Apostrophe Protection Society which was started in England in 2001. Its stated mission was “preserving the correct use of this currently much-abused punctuation mark” (the apostrophe). The Society’s active and vocal stance on the misuse (albeit unintended) of punctuation, made it the target of ridicule. The organisation closed in 2019, waving a white flag of surrender at the seemingly unstoppable march of indifference. What started as a genuine desire to improve written English, ended with the reluctant acceptance that no-one seemed to care.
Nobody likes being corrected, even if it’s justified—it’s embarrassing. Nobody likes being told that they’ve said, or written, something factually or grammatically incorrect. The pedant, then, is vilified as being unduly critical, and a killjoy.
We’ve all heard of the term grammar Nazi, and it’s not a flattering one. It seems there’s a special place in Hell reserved for those who pick up on other people’s linguistic errors. Let’s try and balance things up though, by looking at it from the pedant’s point of view.
In defence of the pedant
Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. The frustration caused, observing the ignorance of others, is hard to keep a lid on. It’s not so much that you’ve spotted a mistake—it’s that you’ve just seen or heard yet another example of a common one. That drives you to want to educate the culprits, and to right the wrong.
For example, the ubiquity of the word paninis (or worse, panini’s) began to annoy me when I started learning Italian. I’d learnt, you see, that the word panini is in fact plural (like spaghetti), so there is no need to pluralise it further. The singular is panino, so logically, if you wanted to pluralise it in anglicised form, paninoes would be the way to go! I’ll stop here, because you’re probably starting to switch off now.
The point is that there are people out there who know more about the written language than you do. If people read your book, and start spotting mistakes, they will start to get distracted. Some things in your book might even be written in a way that doesn’t make sense to the reader. The reader will then start judging you, and your work, needlessly, and for reasons you don’t want. If they’re a potential reader it might actually mean they don’t buy, or read, your book at all.
Don’t disparage the pedant—make use of them!
You don’t want to have the life squeezed out of your work, by someone who irons out all the creases that you’ve deliberately put in. On the other hand, you don’t want embarrassing mistakes published for the whole world to see.
So, go for the middle path—a light-touch approach. Have your writing’s mechanics thoroughly inspected, for quality, by a third party, while keeping your ideas, energy, and voice, intact.
Think of it not so much as just picking you up on your spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but as an all-round sense check. Think of the person doing the checking not as a pedant, but as an expert—that expert being, in fact, an editor. If you choose wisely, you can find one who will be sympathetic and complementary to your work. You are the expert in the subject you’ve written about, the editor is an expert in how to articulate it effectively.
If you work with an editor constructively, with this aim in mind, you can win on all fronts. Your thoughts and ideas will come across clearly, and convincingly, and your readers will focus on those. That can only, surely, work to your advantage.