Pedant? I hope not…

When I was in high school, some of my classmates called me a “walking dictionary.” When I started going out with the guy who became my first husband (we were in high school) his best friend said, “You kiss HER? Isn’t that like kissing a BOOK?”

It wasn’t my first choice (I wanted to be an artist), but I became an English major. I went almost all the way. I even took the exam to see if I COULD go all the way (I could have), but as I labored over the Graduate Record Exam, I realized a PhD program was not for me. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about literary criticism or graduate seminars in discussing the nocturnal emissions of random, ultimately forgotten commentators on the work of those who actually DID write things. I saw I could never subscribe to the idea of skin color or gender as genre. (“How do you really feel about that, Martha?”) The weird thing about how that turned out was that my chances of earning a living were better with a Masters than with a PhD. I had friends with PhDs who were earning what I was and had less job security. Who knew???

English teachers have the reputation of being pedants, and it’s a well-earned reputation. First, no one majors in English without liking to read. Most people who like to read also like words. Kids who’ve had enough English classes enter each new one proving that theory. “If I want a good grade, I have to use big words.” “Plethora” was an oft’ used word in those freshman composition papers. I can say with authority that the word appeared on a plethora of them.

Pedantry was a huge problem for me as an ESL teacher. I am sometimes pedantic, but it’s not my “go to” strategy. I think it negates effort. I think there’s a time and a place for it, but… I had students who were so afraid to speak English, who had been corrected so much during their schooling, that they wouldn’t even try because the pedantic hammer of some teacher somewhere had come down too hard. The purpose of language isn’t to get each word, each verb tense right, not even perfect pronunciation. The purpose of language is to express thoughts, feelings, ideas.

A funny thing about being an English teacher — for a period in the early 2000’s I tried online dating (I regret this with every fiber of my being). When I would tell men I was an English teacher, they often backed off from meeting. Some of them even said they didn’t want to be corrected all the time, giving me a deep insight to their previous relationships — or into them. Maybe they wanted to be the corrector, not the corrected.

Not that I never correct someone’s understanding of vocabulary. I corrected someone the other day. I felt weird about it, but ultimately, I had to.

As a writer I pretty much subscribe to this, written by John Steinbeck and placed in the mouth of a character in a book I haven’t read.

“I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”


In other news, my neighbor just dropped this off on my front porch. The neighbor to the north makes bread as her business. This is advertising, but how cool is this? It’s made from locally grown and milled wheat flower and honey from the little town of La Jara, beautiful fruit of Heaven from Tumbleweed Bakery.

25 thoughts on “Pedant? I hope not…

  1. I love this post for many reasons, Martha. My first husband was my young love and sweetheart. I grew up late and we ended up in very different places, but I was known as a nerd because I loved words. The PhD option was not one I decided was not to my advantage, and stayed with my Masters too. I live how you didn’t correct your esl students an even the kinder I teach just need to understand that words are for communication in any form . No need to shut them down or inhibit them from the beginning and I sometimes struggle with parents who want to correct their spelling rather than letting them ramble on with a detailed story using scribbles and letters and spaces in their own way. And lastly, the wonder gift of the bread, how nice!

    • ❤ I think a lot times desire is underestimated as a learning/teaching tool. I don't think you can stop anyone who really WANTS to learn something. I love my dad so much for taking my 2 and 3 year old scribbles and reading them to me. I KNEW I could write and I also knew I COULDN'T read. It's all a process. I taught a 70+ year old Frenchman who NEVER spoke a word of English the whole time he was in our school. His writing was amazing, but he was afraid to make mistakes. The French are persnickety about their language. I guess he couldn't NOT be persnickety about English or was afraid others would be. I just don't know.

  2. In my experiences with a plethora of teachers and professors, I profess that you don’t seem pedantic at all. 🙂 I love this post. From giggling at the “kissing a book” to my shout of “ME TOO” reading your on-line dating regret (well, husbands in general have created some regrets for me). I’m thankful for those who have corrected me when I needed it. Starting a blog has been the scariest thing in the world to me. Dialect, family talk, and the love of words haven’t always blended perfect. And I do groan at a few things I hear or read (even my own). A PhD wouldn’t have “paid” off for me. After my Master’s I concluded with my Specialist’s. I ain’t so smart and gaining it wouldn’t have made a difference~never expected a good blow to the head would end my career at just shy of 24 years.

    • “Husbands in general” — I hear that. I’m also thankful for those who corrected me when I needed it — but it depended HOW they did it. Studying languages, I wanted to express my whole idea before being corrected. I learned better that way — I wanted the correction, but first I wanted to be understood. I’m also dyslexic and grew up in an era when that wasn’t recognized. I just got “PROOFREAD!!!” and accusations of being careless. That wasn’t helpful — but after all I was able to help my students with learning disabilities because I’d had to deal with mine on my own. I guess it’s all OK after all. 🙂

      • I understand. My oldest sister is dyslexic and lives in assisted living at 54. My niece, her daughter, is being raised by my 78 and 74 year old parents. My background is special education and I’ve spent as much time now on the “testing” end of the table as did the students. It’s so magical to just let the language and ideas flow with the kids. Like you, being understood was my ultimate goal. And, most importantly, for the kids too. I didn’t intend to respond so long to your reply! I don’t write about my family specifics very often. Yet, I come from a few educators and a lot of difficult learning situations. I’ve faced my own in the last several years too. And in many ways, my learning is all new.

        • ❤ My theory now about my learning "disability" is that it's part and parcel of a different kind of mind. It has given me a few serious challenges, but I wouldn't trade it for a more normal brain for all the perfectly spelled wrds (ha ha) in the whirled. 😉

  3. I love the word Plethora. I really do 🙂
    The fear of making a mistake…ahh yes. That’s a big stop sign, especially in the writing life. Teachers and parents can make all the difference. My high school English teacher was outstanding and so encouraging. I really think he sensed my insecurities when no one else did. I was lucky to have him for all 4 years.

  4. I’m another one of those who doesn’t correct things. If a person is trying, I’m not going to kick up a fuss over anything. At the moment, I’m transcribing letters from my husband. While he’s a voracious reader, his punctuation, spelling, and grammar are almost painful for me to transcribe accurately. Since I’m posting images of the letters as well, I can’t edit things. Nearly every letter, I want to correct so many things. They’re usually little things. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to limit him to starting only 1 sentence per letter with the word “so”.

    • So, people do that when they’re thinking while speaking. A linguist in a lecture explained it as a place marker so that listeners realize the person is still talking. I think just gets to be a habit. I’ve been going through some 30 years of my own journals much of which is embarrassing drivel though taken as a whole is starting to be very informative. There are times when I sound like I’m talking (to myself?) and other times it is a writer’s voice. I think the letter always comes close to a real human voice in all its immediacy and “bad” grammar.

      Just checked out your blog. I like the way you write. So, I tried to follow it but godnose if I succeeded as there is no “follow” option. so, I guess we’ll find out…

  5. RE: your thoughts on correcting people. This topic has come up for discussion at our house lately. DH was reading and explaining to me, some writer’s guidelines for starting a Writers Critique Group.

    “Never criticize. Praise what’s good and question what you don’t get, but never say, this is wrong.”

    And I’m saying, “But what if something IS wrong?” Does that make me pedantic?

    How does a writer learn if no one says, “You’re doing this wrong. You’ve switched back and forth from past to present tense verbs in your story.” Or “You’ve included WAY too much detail.” Or what about telling a speaker, “You’re pronouncing this word wrong.” (Mind you, I don’t often correct wrong speech unless the person’s learning English. Then they want help.)

    Last week I wrote a book review for a story I abandoned because it was so boring. Over-loaded and dragged down by excess detail. One star. A friend gave it four stars, “loved it.” She pointed out the good: the character is getting a new start in life. So there we have the upbeat reviewer being encouraging and Me the Meanie (along with most other reviewers) pointing out what didn’t work. Is an honest review–warts and all–too unkind?

    So I’ve been mulling over what is best when it comes to pointing out faults or mistakes — and your post has brought all these questions back to my mind. 🙂

    • A lot of this depends on the actual situation and what you know of the person and their goals AND where they are in the learning process as well as how serious they are about what they’re doing. There’s no one answer.

      There’s also a hierarchy of importance. The most important thing is what the writer is saying. If that comes through then it’s 90% there. Then criticism is about how to do it better.

      At that point the burden lies on the critic to remember that he/she isn’t the writer. I’ve had reviews that basically faulted my book for not being some other book!

      Switching verb tenses is a legit technical error. It can make the work hard to follow. That isn’t personal taste. Thinking the writer has included too much detail is personal taste. I’ve had readers fault my work because I don’t write like Henry James. I thank God I don’t write like Henry James!

      Critics seem to have a hard time saying “.Not my thing” and realizing that needs no justification at all. Personal taste is personal taste. Technical errors though, that’s not personal taste and it can help a writer a lot to point them out but I’d say always be aware of where the writer is in their journey. Tact and kindness go a long way.

    • Also a writer’s critique group is usually focused on encouragement and building a safe environment for writers. A lot of people are afraid to write. In that arena (where you will never find me) I think it’s a matter of supporting effort. It’s not a class and it’s not confident writers.

      • True about the critique group. Even if it’s not a class, general instructions will work better in that setting than pointing out an individual’s flaws.

        As to “too much detail” and other drags, you’re right that it is personal preference. There are times when I have to say, “The writing style is fine but I just did not like this main character’s personality.” And I want a story that moves; I don’t want a long description of the room, the drapes, the carpet, the armoire that she inherited from her grandparents who owned the house for…etc. Some other readers may appreciate these details. (Depending on genre.)

        if people never finish the book, they never know what you, the writer, wanted to say. So if you’re an author, you want to produce a book most people who choose it will finish it. As I look over this particular book’s reviews, I see one-and-two stars, with lots of “I gave up” and many complaints about way too much detail, so I hope she learns from her reviews. Or is content to write for the ones who “love this type of story” and forget us others. 🙂

        Like the gal who speaks English with a terrible accent, so she has to repeat herself over and over until people like me get it. (Met one yesterday) If she’s happy there, at least she’s talking.

        Someone asked once, “Why would you ever leave a review for a book if you didn’t like it?” Maybe I have it wrong, but I don’t think that’s fair to readers. Reviews are supposed to help other readers select books; not make the writer feel good. When choosing a book I always check out what negative things people have said as well as the positive comments, and weigh it all.

        You’re right; so much is personal preference.

        • I think if a review says, “I didn’t like this,” I can say, “Well, that’s that person.” No writer can please everyone. That’s something every writer needs to learn. Writers live so much in their heads and are often so in love with their work, that they’re surprised when someone doesn’t like it.

          I mostly write historical fiction that’s set in Switzerland. That’s why I decided not to subject myself to the grueling process of submitting my work to agents any more. I could get by with writing what I do if I were already a famous writer, but I’m not. I know from the get go how many American readers are going to walk away from that because people search out things they believe they can relate to. It’s OK with me. I hate the vast majority of chick lit which is a very popular genre. I don’t read it. I HAVE read it, but I don’t choose it. The writer needs to know that is just how it is.

          As for the details — lots of readers love that. In the critiques of my work the lack of (laborious) detail is a common complaint. But the way I see it, we don’t go through our world or our lives paying attention to every detail of our existence and neither would the people living in my novels. It’s just their world. I try to bring out and up those things that establish a setting in which they live and the items that draw their attention. I think that brings important details into the kind of relief that reveals something about the character.

          Some critics are frustrated writers and when I read those (on my work or others’ work) I think, “Write your own book.” Other critics read with an eye to criticism. The criticism I value most as a writer and someone looking for a book to read is that which shows the reader read the book on its merits and the criticism arose from an honest urge to tell people about it — good or bad.

          Writing historical fiction, my work has been critiqued by people with really strong biases against some historical events — like the Protestant Reformation. I just have to know that’s going to happen. I’ve had criticism that says, “Warning! This book is about religion!” Not helpful to me, but definitely helpful to the next person who might also not want to read about religion.

      • Interesting! We have something in common, as I love history and have done a fair bit of historical research about 16th century Europe, mainly Austria, Switzerland, Holland –in order to write Mennonite history.

        One picks up curious tidbits, like one poor woman who was thrown in the dungeon at Falkenstein castle because her plant bloomed in the winter. “Must be witchcraft!”

        I also dislike chick-lit, or any lit that shows the female main character as a pouty, self-centered brat. Someone I’d avoid if I could, so why should I read about her? That’s one “flaw” I will mention in a review. “The MC, supposedly 32, behaves like a 13-yr-old.”

        As to your thought: Write your own book, an interviewer once asked a prominent Scottish writer why Scotland has produced so many writers. He replied, “It’s our argumentative nature. We read a book and think, ‘No, this writer hasn’t got it right!’ so we write our own book.” 🙂

        I’m being long-winded about this. Sorry.

        • My books — The Brothers Path and The Price — are about Mennonites, though in The Bros Path, of course, they’re Anabaptists (1525-27ish). The Price (18th century) brings them to America. Some of the research was harrowing to read. The Bros Path is listed (I think, still) in Masthof Books catalog. One of the greatest things that happened to me as a writer was when that book was bought for the university library of a Mennonite library in Canada. ❤ These two books are 2 and 3 in a trilogy that begins in the 13th century with Savior. I'm plugging myself, but you might be my audience. ❤

          That Scots argument thing — I've written a lot in response to Sir Walter Scott's misrepresentation of the medieval leper. (laughing yellow head emoji) I'm sure he's pretty upset by that…

      • 🙂
        Yes, in Switzerland they were known as Anabaptists or simply Swiss brethren. The Dutch Mennonites were called after prominent leader Menno Simons.

        Research is a challenge. One woman wrote a book without doing much, so she had one of the characters building a bookcase — in 1539. Ha!

  6. Another vote for plethora, but you already know how much I like that word. I don’t use it very often though. It is so good I save it for special occasions. 🙂

    Í wondered how multicultural the phrase “rat’s ass/arse” was. I like that phrase too, but I haven’t wanted to shock anyone by using it.

    Bloody hell, the Thursday Ragtag Prompt is “pronounced”. I programmed it two weeks ago”, and here you’ve used it in this post. Oh well. 🙂

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