by MERLIN CROSSLEY
Is there any protection against slipping into pedantry? Into an obsession with grammatical perfection stealthily advanced under the guise of a reasonable insistence on clarity.
Pride is a driving force in academia, and pride in knowledge, pride in the quality of work, is central to academic life. But as time goes on academics tend to gather more and more knowledge of the little things, and sometimes this is paraded as pedantry, and used to police writing, so that apostrophes, commas, semi-colons, colons, m and n dashes, that and which, and Oxford commas, attract undue attention.
It’s sort of nice being in a club that cares about these things. I’ve learnt a little about all of the above gradually. Some I learnt from teachers at school and I benefited from the knowledge. Speaking proper, like Eliza Doolittle, is important. What’s surprised me now is that I keep learning. The waters of grammatical convention run deep.
But I’ve also noticed how pedantry can be used to show superiority, or worse to belittle and to exclude. “How can this researcher achieve gene editing when they can’t even place an apostrophe correctly?”. Somehow and sometimes things seem to get out of perspective and too great a weight is put on the little things.
The usual defence for pedantry is that the meaning of the sentence is compromised if the punctuation is not right, and the consequences could be terrible. Imagine if the phrase “let’s eat grandma” is prioritised over “let’s eat, grandma”. Apparently, the power of commas is immense and several times in history the world has gone off track because of avoidable misunderstandings.
Part of me loves these ridiculously contrived stories. I like the cleverness and ambiguity. I marvel at how much power a comma can assume. But ultimately, I conclude that word choice and order is nine tenths of communication and correct grammar plays a lesser role. Watching politicians, I’ve also learnt that if it’s worth saying it’s worth saying twice in different ways, so eventually the message does get through.
In my own area of research I’ve been told that “epigenetics is the punctuation of the genome”. This drives me nuts. Epigenetics is already one of the most confused topics in my field – largely because of how the word’s meaning has changed as molecular understandings of the phenomenon have advanced. To attempt to describe epigenetics with a metaphor about punctuation creates a sort of initial joy of recognition followed by almost total bewilderment. Epigenetics is really just about turning genes on and off without breaking them. It is not about changing their meaning.
Going back to pedantry, I must confess that one of the reasons I rail against it, is that I feel I have become increasingly pedantic over time. Partly, this has just been through celebrating the knowledge of linguistic conventions with others who also care, and part of it is about striving for perfection. It is not all intended as snobbery. Though I worry now that’s how it may seem.
Perhaps the best defence for zero tolerance grammatical policing, is that it is a way of emphasising “attention to detail”. Attention to detail is genuinely important. One defective o-ring can bring down a Space Shuttle, a single letter change in our vast genome can inflict lifelong genetic disease, adding 1.0M nitric acid, rather than 0.1M (as I did in a first year chemistry lab) can have explosive consequences. Obviously, in computing meticulous attention to programming detail is critical.
So, establishing a culture, where near enough is not good enough, where proper attention is paid to the little things, certainly has some advantages and is perhaps a pre-requisite for progress.
But increasingly I worry that the world is dividing between those who know and care about knowledge, and those who feel they are looked down upon by those in the know. As knowledge expands, as education expands, as more and more people move through tertiary education, one would expect the world to become flatter, fairer, more united but we seem to be at a difficult moment where a lot of people feel they are missing out and feel they are deliberately locked out and actively despised by people, who think they know better and are better.
Perhaps it was always thus, and hierarchies and divisions are part of the human condition. But hopefully by reining in my own pedantry, rather than attempting to be a global Henry Higgins, I can move to not worrying too much about the linguistic eccentricities I see in students’ work, and focus more on the bigger things that generate a fair community by focussing on intent and meaning rather than on punctuation.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic