"Pedantic"

I've grown weary of this word. I've grown weary of the pedants who bandy it about, nevermind that they misuse it. Most often, I see it used in reviews of books on writing. Two examples, but I shan't link to the reviews in which I found them:

  • a book is given one-star because of its supposedly "pedantic instructions"
  • another is given one-star for its "pedantic rules"

Do you see the problem with this usage? If you don't, you should, especially if you desire to be a published writer. Here's the definition:

pedant (ped′ənt), n. 1. a person who makes an excessive or inappropriate show of learning. 2. a person who overemphasizes rules or minor details. —pe•dan•tic (pə dan′tik), pe•dan′ti•cal, adj.pe•dan′ti•cal•ly, adv.

pedantry (ped′ən trē), n., pl. -ries. 1. the character or practices of a pedant, as undue display of learning. 2. slavish attention to rules, details, etc. 3. an instance of being pedantic.

If pedantry is the "slavish attention to rules, details, etc," then the rules or instructions themselves cannot be pedantic. People are pedantic! The act of being a slave to rules, details (especially minor details), is pedantic.

Here's an example of pedanticism: insisting that CDs always be called CDs, and never allowing that they be called "albums" simply because they're not made of vinyl. What is an album but a collection? We have photo albums, yes? And they are collections of photographs. If a CD, a collection of songs, is never allowed to be called an "album," then that's an act of pedantry. That a CD is not made of vinyl is irrelevant.

Further, to use "pedantic" in reference to books whose intent is to instruct one in the art of writing is ignorant. Instruction involves rules, like it or not. It's the nature of the beast. Any art, be it writing, music, sculpture, you name it, has rules. Some rules are hard and fast, but some of them are not. They are all rules, nevertheless. Some will argue that rules kill art. Bullshit. Art involves discipline. Any artist with integrity will tell you that, and discipline invariably involves rules of some sort. If you're the sort who can't get beyond that fact then you likely haven't got what it takes to be an artist.

Another example: In music, you have keys, by which I mean a set of notes that go together harmoniously. You play in the key of G, for example. That's a rule of music. Yet another: In fiction writing, if you want your story to be believable, it has to have an internal consistency, even if the world of your story defies the rules of reality. Violate the rules of your story and it becomes unbelievable and no one will care to read it. That's a rule of writing. You can't escape rules.

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and dexterity can be taught to play a saxophone, but not everyone has the talent to play it well and with artistry. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence can be taught to write a grammatically correct sentence, and to compose a reasonably intelligent essay, but not everyone has the talent to take words and sentences and paragraphs and weave them into a tale of fiction that will capture your imagination and transport you back in time, as in a historical novel, or into magical lands, as in a fantasy, or into the deepest reaches of space, as in a work of science fiction, and leave you believing it, feeling as if you've experienced it yourself, despite the fact that it's all really just ink formed into symbols on the surface of some highly processed wood.

At this point, would-be writers (and others) will no doubt haul out that most favourite rule of their own: Rules are meant to be broken! True. However, they are never to be broken in ignorance. Why? This should be simple enough to understand. You should know why, but if you don't, then I'll explain it to you.

In the first place, if you don't know the rules, then you can't possibly know if you're obeying them or breaking them. If you don't know the rules, then you certainly can't explain why you've chosen to break those which you've broken. This is a state of ignorance! Is that how you wish to be known? As ignorant?

In the second place, if you're breaking a rule, you should not only know the rule you are breaking, but you should also know why you are breaking it. This shows that you're not only willing to flaunt the rules, but that you can do so intelligently. If you can't articulate the rule or your reason for breaking it, then your primary concern should be to learn it and apply it. Rules should never be broken without purpose, especially in writing. The purpose of writing, including fiction, is communication. If you don't know why you're breaking the rules, then you run the risk of miscommunication, and that goes completely counter to the whole purpose of writing.

Here's an example that I find particularly annoying: Many of today's writers will have uneducated characters in their stories say something like, "I would of done it if I could of." That sentence is a grammatical mess. We know what is meant, but the actual words used are nonsensical. Written correctly, it should be, "I would've done it if I could've." There's still a grammatical problem even with that construction, but it's an intelligent conveyance of the speaker's lack of education that simultaneously avoids characterizing the author as unintelligent.

I find that particular practice—would of for would've and could of for could've—annoying because it ignores this simple fact: How the hell else do you pronounce those contractions?! Certainly there are those who give emphasis to the contracted syllable, but so what? There are better ways to convey a fictional character's lack of education/intelligence without resorting to those idiotic constructions. Unfortunately, the Internet has made it readily apparent that many actually write in that fashion, which is an insult of the writer's intelligence, and an insult of the educational systems that allowed them to graduate (assuming that they did graduate).

Therefore, it is important to first know the rules. As I said, you can't escape them.

Artistry, no matter what its form and despite its paradoxical mystery, requires discipline. Discipline implies rules. However, that doesn't make the instruction of those rules an act of pedantry. In fact, given how I've so often seen this word used, and that it is almost always misused, I've come to the conclusion that those who use it are, in fact, pedants, trying to impress us with their vocabulary.

Trust me. The pedants can be safely ignored, or laughed at, whichever is your preference.

0 comment(s):

Post a Comment