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.