The perils of being a grammar pedant

Earlier this year, the chief economist of The World Bank lost his prestigious position. Not for corruption, for fiddling the books, or being bad at sums. He was fired because he was a grammar pedant.

Professor Paul Romer had sent his staff a series of emails, urging them to write clearly and succinctly instead of their usual ‘corporate or bank speech.’ He suggested they consider their readers, struggling to make sense of the jargon and obfuscation. He issued statistics about the maximum number of ‘ands’ to appear in any document. He threatened not to publish the bank’s World Development Report, “if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeded 2.6 per cent.”

Professor Romer’s aim was for clear, easily understood language, language so unequivocal and focused that it would “penetrate deeply like a knife.” A noble aim, one that all business and report writers should attempt.

His problem was not so much that he was too focused on the excellence of language in the bank’s publications. It was that he didn’t focus enough on developing good relations with his staff. His colleagues so resented his highhanded and abrasive approach that they rebelled, and Prof. Romer was asked to leave. You can read more about Prof. Romer and other grammar pedants at The Conversation, here

This blog post isn’t about developing and maintaining good relations with your staff and colleagues, important though that is. It’s about treading the fine line between writing hyper-accurately and writing clearly. Good grammar is vital for clarity in writing and reading. But hyper-accuracy or grammar pedantry can often appear to be one-upmanship: “I’m better educated/more knowledgeable than you.” In a supposedly classless society, grammar pedantry suggests “I’m higher class than you.”

Yes, I’m a grammar pedant!

I’ll freely put my hand up to that. As a professional editor, it’s almost mandatory. We have to know the correct grammar usage for every writing occasion. An editor’s job is to assist the writer to express themselves accurately and clearly, in a way that helps the reader understand, rather than having to struggle through a thicket of poorly chosen words or impenetrable jargon. To use Prof. Romer’s metaphor, we are surgeons, using the keen blade of language to penetrate deeply into the reader’s understanding.

No, I’m not a grammar pedant!

The Conversation article lists several grammar pedants who used their pedantry like battle-axes rather than scalpels. Instead of gently elucidating a misuse of language, they attack, often forcibly. The result? No-one is convinced; the person criticised is resentful, the aggressive pedant is triumphant, and clear communication is missing in action.

It’s all about balance

Like everything in life, grammar usage is a balancing act. Language changes; it is not permanently fixed, not “set in stone.” (I spelled usage without an internal ‘e,’ but I’m willing to bet that like ‘aging,’ now almost mandatorily ‘ageing,’ ‘usage’ will gain a internal ‘e.’ ‘Useage.’ ‘Ageing’ is a pet peeve of mine, but as I often edit government documents, especially healthcare ones, I grit my teeth and leave ‘ageing’ alone. Spelling changes. Grammar changes. Life goes on. Only pedants raise an eyebrow, or worse, comment, when a sentence contains a split infinitive or ends with a preposition.

The important point is that the meaning should be clear. Your reader needs to hear your message. Of course, your spelling should be correct and your language suited to the level of your readership. But what were once considered iron-clad grammar rules, now have a bit of wriggle room. We all know what is meant by Star Trek’s motto “to boldly go . . .” No confusion there.
Balance is important in all areas of life. It’s important in good writing and speaking, and in good relationships. Knowing what you’re talking about and expressing it clearly matters. Pedantry, on the other hand, should remain a private pursuit like stamp collecting.

You’re not a grammar pedant but similar words confuse you? Click these links for helpful hints:

Six common grammar errors that can trip you up

Five-quantity-related word pairs that can trip you up 

Six more word groups that can easily trip you up