Pedant: A Personal Story

pedant: 1. a person who makes an excessive or inappropriate display of learning
2. a person who overemphasizes rules or minor details
3. a person who adheres rigidly to book knowledge without regard to common sense

I remember being four or five and sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap at my grandma’s kitchen table, hunched over a coloring book and whipping my crayons around in my best “maybe this is modern art” style. My great-grandmother, glancing down and catching sight of my free-form creativity, let rip a tirade about the importance of coloring in the lines so fierce that it made me feel like I had just disgraced the baby Jesus, himself. This, of course, led to a childhood complex about following the rigid rules of coloring, and I had one of my first bouts of anxiety in kindergarten class when my teacher returned my coloring assignment with less than high marks.

My great-grandmother was a pedant. For her, rules were rules; rules were there for a reason; and, you had best follow the rules, lest you be the target of one of her tirades. (She did become much more enjoyable in her latter years, but this was after dementia set in.) And now, some twenty years later, I must admit that I have inherited my great-grandmother’s pedantic quality. I imagine it is near impossible to be a copy editor and not be a pedant (or be pedantic, which is the adjective version of the noun pedant). There are rule books and style guides and dictionaries and every kind of book you can think of to tell you just how to write correctly, proofread correctly, and do your job. Copy editing is, in and of itself, based on rule following. One definition of pedantic is to be “finicky or fastidious with language.” Another could be “the kind of person who starts a grammar blog.”

In case you were wondering, yes, I just insulted myself.  Pedant and pedantic are usually used in an at least minorly offensive way to describe someone who won’t “think outside the box” or put down the rule book to consider a creative solution. I’ve been thinking of this word lately because I’ve been seeing and hearing it slung around about political candidates now that the presidential race is starting to gear up. I think bureaucrats are also inherently pedantic.

But when you look at the antonyms (the opposite words) for pedant, it doesn’t seem like being the opposite would be so great either. Antonyms include imprecise, informal, ignorant, and untaught. Could it be, wonders pedantic little me, that the best way is to be neither pedantic nor its opposite? To know what rules to follow and what rules to break? Perhaps. I’ll have to check my Chicago Manual of Style.

One thought on “Pedant: A Personal Story

  1. Pedantry is strong in my DNA. I fight the impulse to “help”; I think the trick is to grade the errors by degree, forbear most, try to be diplomatic on the others, and occasionally rip on someone, usually when they are being pedantic and incorrect themselves.


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