Pedants are Assholes

I need to be better at handling them. I don’t even take my own advice and end up making things worse. It’s just so damned hard.

To be clear, pedantry is not disagreement — although any disagreement automatically opens a lot of ground for pedantry. Someone is not being pedantic simply because they have a different opinion or are making a contrary argument. The point at which a discussion is jointly entered, most kinds of explanation are fair game.

Pedantry is also different than teaching, although the pedant always claims that’s what they’re doing. Like any good troll, they hide behind the ambiguity of language. But there is a clear difference. Teaching is student-focused, where the most important person in the exchange is the learner. Extra steps are taken to explain it in terms they can understand, and any failure of understanding is assumed first to be the responsibility of the teacher, who will immediately try a new tack.

Pedantry, on the other hand, is “teacher”-focused. Its sole purpose is to conspicuously display the mental achievements of the speaker — masked as the opposite, of course. (As such, pedantry is actually not hostile to teaching and may come at it sideways.) The difference is quite simple.

All native speakers of a language have an innate sense of appropriateness. We know to talk differently to the judge than to grandma, or to our boss versus our friends. But a pedant is ignorant of appropriateness. His starting assumption is that you, dear stranger, are obviously lacking the knowledge that he, happening by and overhearing you’re error, is graciously happy to provide.


Incidentally, this is why pedants almost never get the hint, after the fact, that their comments might not have been welcome. If they were at all sensitive to the hyperdimensionality of language — a perception most people acquire passively in primary school — they wouldn’t have opened their mouth in the first place. (Test that next time and see if it works.)

The fact is, most human discourse is casual, and casual speech is full of jokes, exaggerations, irony, flirtation, poetry, vagary, imprecision, and lies. Even discussions on seemingly academic topics will likely be more about building relationships, sharing experiences, making an impression, or just passing time. People are — thankfully — not computers. Even where the point is direct information exchange, casual conversations tend to satisfy themselves with the gist of the topic rather than all its accuracies.

There are opportunities in life both to teach and to learn, although in my experience they’re considerably rarer than all the rest of it, and it’s not always clear. But as it happens, there’s an easy test: Ask.

Recently, I was out with friends at a small eight-seat neighborhood pub in an alley in Shibuya, in the heart of Tokyo. Coincidentally, the bartender was a Japanese-American from New York taking a year off from school to visit her homeland and pick up as much of the language as she could. After a time, the four of us were joined by an American-born Australian on his first visit to Japan.

The conversation turned to language and culture, and then to a very particular difference between Japanese and English. Sensing that the Australian was a bit left out, and since he was sitting next to me, I turned and asked if he wanted to know what we were talking about.

“Do you want a little Japanese lesson?”

He made a face. “No, not really.”

I nodded and said okay.

No harm, no foul.

[Side note: He was a strange one. Had no interest in seeing any temples or experiencing any of the traditional culture in the ten days he was here. He had lived in Australia almost all of his life but hated it — said all Australians ever did was call everyone “cunt” — and was desperately trying to hold onto his American accent, to the point of being a little disdainful when I said I could pick up some Aussie sneaking in.]

Consider the following fictional exchange:

Sharon: You need help with that?

Bob (struggling): No, I think I got it.

Sharon: You sure?

Bob (exasperated): Yes.

Sharon: Okay. It’s just, you might have better luck if you turned it upside down, but it’s your thing. I’ll let you do it.

Bob: Thank you.

This kind of talk comes naturally when there is basic respect between speakers, rather than an assumption of ignorance. Sharon isn’t looking for an opportunity to show off. She wants Bob to succeed. But that means she can’t force her way in. She knows it’s not about her. So she asks. Bob says no.

Sharon could easily have left it there — and probably should have — but seeing as how Bob was making an obvious mistake, she broaches the topic again, being careful not to push. She asks if he is sure. He says yes — a second opportunity to drop it.

She can’t. Not yet. But rather than treating Bob like an ignoramus who clearly doesn’t know what he is doing, she phrases her unsolicited help with the conditional “might” so as to keep it from sounding crass. More importantly, she ends her ill-advised comments with a formal acknowledgement of Bob’s wishes. “I’ll let you do it.” And then she follows through.

Bob thanks her. Perhaps he wants the pleasure of figuring it out himself. Perhaps he’s just being stubborn. Either way, it’s his choice, and Sharon verbally demonstrates respect for that (even though she probably should have just stopped when the question was asked and answered the first two times).

None of that exchange involves complex vocabulary or communication skills most people haven’t mastered by the time they’re out of their teen years. It’s completely natural talk… when starting from a position of respect. Which just goes to show how flexible language is, and how much room we have to maneuver, and how awful is the asshole who plows over all of it.

There are gray areas of course. Language is inherently ambiguous. But in those cases, the same strategy applies:

  • Don’t approach people as if they need fixing. It’s not your job to fix people.
  • Accept that casual speech is hyperdimensional; accuracy might not be the point.
  • If you think a clarification might be in order, find an appropriate way to ask.
  • If you can’t be bothered to broach it appropriately, don’t bother to broach it at all.
  • If your help is declined, respect that and move on.

And remember, just because someone is wrestling with a topic or skill you have mastered doesn’t give you an automatic invitation. You are not the guest star of this episode of their life. The show isn’t even about you. If you’re genuinely interested in teaching, versus just showing off, come with respect and put the learner’s needs before your own. And if it’s praise for your skills you want, go create something with them.

And now I feel better.

cover image by Vincent Mahé