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Spelling, grammar and punctuation—time to love the pedant?

Spelling, grammar and punctuation must be high on the list of things people most hate having corrected, especially in public. Spend any time on social media and you’ll see someone pulled up on there/their/they’re. An indignant rebuttal will almost certainly follow, and the bystanders will be getting their popcorn out.

What you’ll also notice about social media, however, is that it’s where immediacy takes precedence over accuracy. That’s understandable where being in the moment is what it’s all about. There isn’t time to dot every i and cross every t when you’ve a point to make before someone else makes it.

What about in books or brochures though—aren’t they all about being creative? If you’re writing a book, shouldn’t you be grabbing what comes into your mind and using it? Isn’t retaining that freshness more important than tweaking the detail to the nth degree? Or, with all the time and effort you’ve put into the writing process, does that mean there’s no excuse for mistakes?

Who are these guardians of spelling, grammar and punctuation anyway?

You probably haven’t heard of the Apostrophe Protection Society which was started in England in 2001. Its stated mission was “preserving the correct use of this currently much-abused punctuation mark” (the apostrophe). The Society’s active and vocal stance on the (albeit unintended) misuse of punctuation, made it the target of ridicule. The organisation closed in 2019 (although it has since been revived), waving a white flag of surrender at the seemingly unstoppable march of indifference. What started as a genuine desire to improve written English ended with the reluctant acceptance that no-one seemed to care.

Nobody likes being corrected, even if it’s justified—it’s embarrassing. Nobody likes being told that what they’ve said or written is factually or grammatically incorrect. The pedant, then, is vilified as being unduly critical and a killjoy.

We’ve all heard the term grammar Nazi, and it’s not a flattering one. It seems there’s a special place in Hell reserved for those who pick up on other people’s linguistic errors. Let’s try and balance things up though, by looking at it from the pedant’s point of view.

In defence of the pedant

Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. The frustration caused observing the ignorance of others is hard to keep a lid on. It’s not so much that you’ve spotted a mistake—it’s that you’ve just seen or heard yet another example of a common one. That drives you to want to educate the culprits and right the wrong.

A little example of my own is the use of the word paninis (or worse, panini’s) which began to annoy me when I started learning Italian. I’d learnt, you see, that the word panini is plural (like spaghetti), so there is no need to pluralise it further. If you just want one it’s a panino, so logically, if you wanted to pluralise it in anglicised form, paninoes would be the way to go! I’ll stop here because you’re probably starting to switch off now.

The point is that there are always going to be people out there who know more about the written language than you do. If people read your book or brochure (or website, etc) and start spotting mistakes they will start to get distracted. Some things you’ve written might not even make sense to the reader. The reader will then start judging you and your work needlessly, and for reasons you don’t want. If they’re a potential customer it might actually mean they don’t buy from you at all.

Don’t disparage the pedant—make use of them instead!

You don’t want to have the life squeezed out of your work by someone who irons out all the creases that you’ve deliberately put in. On the other hand, you don’t want embarrassing mistakes published for the whole world to see.

So, go for the middle path—a light-touch approach. Have your writing’s mechanics thoroughly inspected for quality by a third party, while keeping your ideas, energy and voice intact.

Think of it not so much as just picking you up on your spelling, grammar and punctuation, but as an all-round sense check. Think of the person doing the checking not as a pedant, but as an expert—that expert being, in fact, an editor. If you choose wisely you can find one who will be sympathetic and complementary to your work. You are the expert in the subject you’ve written about—the editor is an expert in how to articulate it effectively.

If you work with an editor constructively with this aim in mind you can win on all fronts. Your thoughts and ideas will come across clearly and convincingly and your readers will focus on those. That can only, surely, work to your advantage.

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