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Books Column: Regarding pedantry: a note on from whence this snide retort comes

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Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams gives satisfaction to the pedants – and gives thanks to Shakespeare and King James.

My father wears a t-shirt in public that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

This is the way I prefer it. When we were growing up, his corrections were rather the opposite of silent. For example: to this day, thanks to dad, I can’t imagine how anyone aims to say the equivalent of “different from” using other prepositions. Different than? Different to? Pure butchery, as dad would indicate with a bark of exasperation, whenever we little ones misspoke.

I inherited my father’s habit of mentally collecting others’ grammatical missteps, but I try to stay true to his t-shirt and refrain from pointing them out. (Insert hooting from my wife and children here.) With respect to grammar, being polite is better than being correct.

Such a stance is not one taken, however, by many readers of newspaper columns, who pounce on errors the way rival poets pounce on typos — with a mixture of righteousness and glee that ranges from merely unbecoming to downright aberrant.

I first learned of the peculiar penchants of pedants during a stint as a columnist at the Sunday Times, years ago. On Mondays, my inbox would flare up with notes quibbling over phraseology and punctuation. I archived them under the label “Pater Familiar”. (Geddit?)

Nowadays, enough of you are reading this Daily Maverick column that pedant-father-figures have started emerging from the digital woodwork below the line, in the comments section. Comment sections have replaced emails wholesale for the expression of opinion, I’ve found — which has made everyone, including pedants, quite lazy. In the comments section, life is easy: you appear, you drop your little “present”, and you sashay off without worrying for a second about who has to clean up after.

The best riposte to a pedant, of course, is: “You must be fun at parties.” But I’ve never actually replied to anyone answering that description below the line. Consider this column my blanket retort, then.

For it’s worth pointing out that pedantry smothers language. Returning to my father, he also is the person who introduced me to Shakespeare. The Bard famously scoffed at the rules of language as much as he scoffed at the French — for example, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even stay consistent on “who” versus “whom”. The horror.

Not that he needed to: invention was the order of Shakespeare’s day, rather than codification, and so grammar cops were far and few between. Imagine the poetic poverty we’d be living in, had they been more numerous.

From the extravagant glories of Shakespeare I was led to the more austere blessings of the King James Bible — and between the two they settled English for me once and for all. My father’s contradictions became my own: the sweet, unruly music of Elizabethan and Jamesian poetry jostled with the 19th Century rules and exactitude that guides our prose today, and emerged as first among equals.

Whereas dad donned the guise of a dogmatist (literally — remember that t-shirt), I turned out as a well-read anti-pedant, which I remain.

I thus (somewhat helplessly) sprinkle Tudor-Stuart-period phrases throughout my writing — partly as a tell, and partly as bait. It’s like saying “ceviche” aloud and watching for that one confused face in the crowd, who has only ever read the word, and never heard it pronounced.

This includes, recently, the use of “from whence” in one of my pieces. “Whence”, of course, means “from where”, making “from whence” a redundancy. The pedant who called me out on it, below the line, must be fun at parties. 

But the phrase sounds good, don’t you agree? There’s nothing for it but to get religious with language again. I shall, in fact, turn to King James for succour and guidance. Psalm 121:

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” 

I daresay I should put it on a t-shirt. DM

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • Michael Forsyth says:

    Love this.

  • Rona van Niekerk says:

    Enjoyed your article Ben. Thank you.
    “From whence” sounds much better than “from where”, as well as both being more lyrical and conjuring up a magical land.
    “From where” doesn’t work because you’d have to say “Where does my help come from?” This is dull and prosaic, and focuses on help, instead of the myriad possibilities conjured up by “from whence”.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    Heh heh heh, touché. As the pedant in question, and in my best Samuel L. Jackson voice, “Allow me to RETORT!” (You know what line comes next). But in all seriousness, I accept the rebuke. It was not my intention to ‘call you out’ – I’ve been saying the same thing for years until I read Stephen Fry’s ‘More Fool Me’, where he recounts a particularly severe teacher lambasting him for committing the very same, er, error. I just wanted to pass that little nugget on to others, I mean it’s not like I was nasty about it, right? Further, I assure you I’m an absolute hoot at parties; as you are too, I’m sure. You and I, together at a party would absolutely slay. Will you kindly accept my apology? Yours in good grammar, Septic.

  • Steve Herbert says:

    Ben William’s pedantry article made me smile. My father would say it expressed views up with which he could not put.

  • Raymond Auerbach says:

    You should at least try and split the odd infinitive in order to prevaricatingly annoy those mis-placed particles which, awaiting the never-to-be-revealed dangle end.

  • Pist Orf says:

    Far and few between….?

  • Hildegarde Fast says:

    Ag, no, please. “Whence cometh” is pure, simple, elegant. “From whence” jars on the nerves (your father and I would have gotten on famously) and is incorrect. Which begs the question: if the verse is from the King James Version, does that mean the KJV is fallible? Surely not!

    As an aside, Mendelssohn’s “Lift thine eyes” gets it right and is an exquisite choral piece.

  • Shirley Cowling says:

    I so enjoyed this article. I was schooled in classical English grammar and still hear the words in my head “the gerundive takes the possessive”. As a scientific editor I’ve learnt to ignore most of those rules but still find the analysis of clauses useful in ensuring that the meaning is unambiguous – my guiding rule in editing.

  • Ted Baumann says:

    My hope is that the editors of the Daily Maverick pay careful attention to your article. As someone schooled in both academic and journalistic writing, I often cringe at the abuse inflicted upon plain English in these pages. Writers use the passive tense as though it were the grammatical standard. Sentences run on further than a Kenyan marathoner. Unclear references to antecedents in an argument abound.

    This isn’t a problem restricted to the DM, of course. Nearly every English language mass media outfit in the country commits the same language crimes.

    To those who feel it is pedantic to care about these things, remember that the rules of grammar and style exist to facilitate clarity of exposition and understanding. You’re not helping anyone, including those for whom English is a second language, by producing elementary-school standard copy.

    • betsy Kee says:

      I have just read an appaling article about Mick Jagger’s 90th birthday in Forbes magazine. The sentences are ultramarathons filled with so many commas and hanging clauses that all meaning is lost. Journalism at its worst.

  • Michael Morris says:

    Marvellous piece, excellent points. (I’m attached to a solitary ‘whence’, but it does usually feel a little prissy … and, in the King James version, there’s no doubt prosody favours ‘from whence’, which must be true in many instances elsewhere, too. And I remember, here, Amis reporting Vera Nabokov’s saying that, to Vladimir, ‘prosody was all’.)

  • betsy Kee says:

    Love it! I am a pedant and proud of it but I will commence being a silent one!

  • William Stucke says:

    Lovely article. As a fellow pedant, and not often enough silent, I greatly enjoyed it.

    Ah, but have you ever eaten ceviche? Or better still made it? I did both on Saturday 😉

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