Linguistic pedantry

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?

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8 Comments on “Linguistic pedantry”

  1. John Bradley Says:

    Like you, I often find myself wanting to correct what I see as errors of language. Strangely, I’ve found that having the internet often allows me to look up the ‘error’ I’ve spotted and that when I do, the grammar and linguistic websites are much more forgiving than I am. My most recent example was being told on my train that ‘due to a short platform, carriages 1 and 2 will not platform.’ But platform is a noun not a verb isn’t it? The grammar websites reminded me that this was part of a well established tradition and that every time I ‘shoulder a burden’ or ‘table a question’ I am doing the same. Amusingly, this process is known as ‘verbing’ , with ‘verbing’ itself being an example.

  2. Vince Says:

    It can be amusing to listen to politicians use a wrong but close to the correct word in radio interviews. You know they’ve spend hours learning the script and run it from Humpty to Again without one grain of mind power being used including the error, if they have any.


  3. We should be pedantic when incorrect usage leads to ambiguity or to the loss of important distinctions. An example is when people say “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested”.

    But there is an unlovely side to this pedantry. From Glasgow to Galveston, I have heard urban English speakers from disadvantaged backgrounds say (although they would know better than to write) “I’ve went” and “I’ve came” for “I’ve gone” and “I’ve come”. Think how that would go down in a job interview.

  4. Bill Fleming Says:

    An undying error is “appraise” for “apprise”: I’ll appraise them of that development…

  5. cormac Says:

    For me, it’s all about clarity in writing. There is nothing pedantic about attempting to be as clear as possible. Thus ‘No adults, please’ is better than ‘No adults please’ and ‘Some people watch Love Island in order to discover who fights with whom’ – is better than ‘who fights with who’ (to quote from a letter in today’s Irish Times)

  6. baronesssamedi Says:

    I too, often channel my inner Ed Reardon (see Radio 4 ). It’s a burden some of us must bear.

  7. Anna Notaro Says:

    “I was trying to remember all the deadly sins the other day” he said.
    “Greed, envy, gluttony, irony, pedantry…”
    Cassandra Clare “City of Lost Souls”


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