Pedants and Perpetrators: or, language, power and the dangers of simplificitation



Yesterday, the website of The Guardian posted an article on the members of the Idler Academy’s Bad Grammar Awards‘ shortlist. The bad grammar perpetrated by those on the shortlist contained a number of the ‘old chestnuts’ such as the use of less for fewer, the use of an apostrophe in a plural, you’re for your, and it’s for its. So far, so usual. What caught my attention, however, was the following quote at the bottom of the article. It also features on the Academy’s website from one of the judges, and host of the Awards, Jeremy Paxman. It’s a short quotation, but there’s plenty to be said about it.

Jeremy Paxman, The Idler

Jermey Paxman  source:

People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they’re aware of what they’re trying to say.

Let me start with the second sentence. First, I think that people are virtually always aware of what they are trying to say. Whether they also say what they are trying to say is another matter.

Getting people to pay attention to what you say is less a matter of grammatical correctness and more a matter of power. Language is power, though in a different way depending whether you approach it from a purely linguistic perspective, or from a social one.

Linguistically, I think that in this case it works the other way around. Let’s assume for a moment that Mr. Paxman counts himself among the pedants (which I don’t think he does, but more about that later) and that’s what we refers to. What amuses me is that the people who don’t care about grammar, the masses, have been happily using the English language in their own way, without major incidents or misunderstandings for many, many years, without paying attention to the pedants. Why? Because language usage is democratic; it is shaped by the masses.



From a social perspective, however, it is true that some people, or groups, will not have their voices heard, suggesting that they will be disenfranchised because of it. However, this is not because because they use ‘bad grammar’, but because they are disenfranchised already. Not caring about grammar can only disenfranchise you if you have no power to begin with. If you have power, you can speak and write however you want.

Now to the first sentence, and particularly to the word pedant. First, the quote seems to suggest a kind of name-calling by others; this is not what’s happening here. The Bad Grammar Awards (“Starring Jeremy Paxman”), to be held on May 1st, are advertised on the Academy’s website with the following text (my emphasis).

Come to the Idler Academy Bad Grammar Award 2014, a thrilling X-Factor for pedants.



Second, the quote seems to suggest that people who care about grammar are pedants. I don’t think they are, and I don’t think that Mr. Paxman thinks that either. It is very well possible to care about grammar, without being a pedant. But to equate people who care about grammar with pedants creates a problem when we read about ‘those who don’t care about it’. The problem is that what is perpetuated here is a simplistic and false dichotomy in which since those who care are pedants, those who don’t care are the perpetrators of flagrant ungrammaticalities. This is not a helpful way to think about it.

Whereas I think that most people care about language, though mostly subconsciously, many people do not care about grammar, but are mostly indifferent to it. Yes, pedants do exist, but what they care most about is not grammar, but social order, of which they (subconsciously) see grammar as an index. What troubles me is that the perpetuation of such a simplistic dichotomy stands in the way of nuanced discussions about grammar and usage.

Labeling people […] obscures the complexity of their views and makes it harder for people to hear what others have to say: Once we see someone as bearing a label we don’t like, we stop listening. —Deborah Tannen in “The Argument Culture” (1998)

Although Tannen referred to belligerent and divisive attitudes in the media and education, it is no great leap from these to discussions about language, which abound in the press.

You can care about grammar without being a pedant, and you can care about language without caring about grammar. Let’s just be clear with our language (no pedantry intended).

About Robin Straaijer

I am a linguist and EAP trainer, working on English prescriptivism and Standard English. Lover of photography and comedy.
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1 Response to Pedants and Perpetrators: or, language, power and the dangers of simplificitation

  1. Joan Beal says:

    Spot on, Robin! I think you have hit the nail on the head with your comment that ‘pedants’ in the sense discussed here, are using language as a proxy for social class.

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