Why we should be a little less pedantic

Sometimes the message is much more important than the words.

We are, it seems, a nation of pedants. Pedantry - or to give it its proper name, pedantitude - can be a force for good. An apostrophe here or a comma, there, can sometimes make a massive difference to an otherwise good sentence, rendering it incomprehensible and impossible to understand. (Well, without re-reading, working out what's going on, saying "Oh, right" to yourself and moving on. But who wants to do that? We're busy people nowadays. We need to be spoonfed our information and for it to be perfect the moment it arrives in front of us, in the form of words.)
People got upset, didn't they, about the apostrophes disappearing from the Waterstones (or should that be Waterstone's?) shops. I don't worry so much, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I should declare an interest, in that the high street booksellers were the first company to give me a job when I was unemployed, and so are therefore clearly the best company in the world ever (and do check out their staff recommendations, as they're really very good).

But secondly, this is, for better or worse, the way things are going: if you put an apostrophe in a hashtag, for example, it doesn't work. People are browsing the web looking for stuff, and don't always get their punctuation perfectly precise; companies need to be as accessible as possible, without alienating customers who may (or might) not be as capable as those of us who went to good schools at getting things right. Our language, which has changed a lot down the centuries, is changing even now, and it's something to celebrate, rather than worry about.

Besides, I think there's a stench of snobbery about pedantry sometimes. People call misplaced apostrophes "greengrocer's apostrophe's", sneering at people who've got up at four in the morning and lugged around giant crates of fresh fruit and then, for some reason, haven't had the decency to get their punctuation right as well, like that's the most important thing of all. "Oh I'm sorry," says the greengrocer, back from Covent Garden in the freezing December morning air, "I really ought to pay more attention to where I'm putting my commas and that. Thank you very much, Mr Booksmart, for looking down on me! Now bugger off out of my shop, you don't have a job and can't afford my canteloupes." Look, we've all done it. We've all tutted at signs, and the Facebook updates of people we used to know who turned out to be quite thick. We've all been there, and it's a cheap laugh, but, I don't know who ends up looking like the bigger idiot.

All writer's, me included, like to be corrected when they get something hideously and awfully wrong. (We might cry and stamp our feet at the time, but we appreciate it really.) Or even slightly wrong. We don't like getting things wrong at all. We try our best, god love us, but we're not necessarily people with perfect grammar and English or who can spend five minutes looking up facts on Google to make sure they're completely accurate; writing is sometimes (or perhaps often) more about having ideas in the first place rather than having the exact right correct perfect words to make them into the best sentences.

If you can have both skills, well, then the world is yours for the taking of course, but I leave that kind of writing class to your AA Gills, your Johnny Clarksons, your whatshisface, you know, the one who writes about what he had for dinner, who's got a sister who plays chess or snap or Yahtzee or something, yes him.

Most decent publications have subeditors, dusty old pedants who act as a kind of vital safety net to save writers from themselves. It's a job I used to do - yes, I was that corduroy-clad soldier. But as they dwindle in number and gradually go to that great unhyphenated adjectival in the sky, more and more copy ends up appearing in its raw, unedited, ragged state.

It's a shame, but again, that's the way these things are going.

All that said, I think there's a level of pedantitudinousness that extends way beyond the kind of helpful corrections that all author's appreciate, that becomes a kind of snippy one-upmanship. "Oh, you've used the word 'may' when you should have used 'might'," say people, quickly, on Twitter, making fun of someone's usage of the English language, as if it may (or should that be might?) make a difference to the meaning of what you've said. Yes yes yes, you wont to say, all right, I get you're point, but look - the thing is the thing, isn't it?

Look at what it's actually trying to say, rather than lobbing rotten fruit at the greengrocers' apostrophes. Sometimes the message is much more important than the word's.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Wikipedia.
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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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