It’s great being a pedant. Many professional writers love nothing more than gleefully pouncing on a wayward apostrophe the way a predator picks off a limping herbivore. The bestselling 2003 book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” played to this pleasure, offering delicious catharsis to all those who had secretly fumed for years about the “grocer’s apostrophe” (“Apple’s and pear’s, load’s cheaper”) and other grammar crimes.
But is pedantry helpful? The problem is that it often assumes language conforms to a single, immutable set of rules, when in reality language evolves constantly. (When did you last hear: “Our company hath developed integrated solutions for thee”?)
And in business copywriting, UK English pedants find themselves in conflict not just with US English (Being Sniffy About Title Case, For Example) but also with the need to work with non-native speakers for whom the finer points of grammar can create confusion rather than clarity.
We think it’s time to be “post pedantic”. This means caring about correctness but recognising that language changes over time; prioritising clarity over dogma; and being flexible enough to work with different sets of rules.
How “post pedantic” are you?
Q1. Which of these statements do you agree with?
a. Of course you can start sentences with ‘and’. And why not?
b. Maybe you could start a sentence with ‘and’ in some jokey advertising copy.
c. Sentences should never, ever start with ‘and’. My English teacher said so.
Q2. How anxious did you become on seeing that Q1 ended with a preposition?
a. It didn’t bother me.
b. Mildly anxious.
c. Having palpitations right now.
Q3. How do you feel about split infinitives?
a. Who cares about splitting infinitives?
b. It’s OK to occasionally split infinitives.
c. Split infinitives reflect inadequate education and disrespect for rules.
Q4. Mistakes in apostrophes should be:
a. Forgiven, because apostrophes are confusing.
b. Corrected, with a wry avuncular smile.
c. Punishable by death.
Q5. When British people use US English words and spellings:
a. You realize it’s regular behavior in many companies.
b. It sometimes shows US English has handy words that UK English lacks.
c. You want to kick them.
Q6. In which of these phrases would you be happy to leave out the hyphen?
a. One-off items.
b. The director will speak to small-business owners.
c. Long-term strategy.
Q7. In UK English, the word “innit”:
a. Is a useful colloquialism but would nonetheless sit awkwardly in the chairman’s statement of an annual report. Innit.
b. Is not really something of which I approve.
c. Marks you down as a total dimwit if you even think about using it.
Q8. How should job titles be written out?
a. However the client wants them.
b. Always in lower case, i.e. chief executive.
c. Always in title case, i.e. Chief Executive.
Q9. Copy written for websites must always be:
a. Tailored to its audience.
b. Shorter than for print.
c. Full of lists, because, sadly, that’s the only way to make people read things these days.
Q10. Bullet points should be:
a. Used consistently.
b. Subject to complex rules.
c. Avoided at all costs in favour of good old-fashioned paragraphs.
If you answered…
You are an über-pedant. Eats, Shoots and Leaves remains your bible. You never leave home without chalk and marker pens, carried to summarily execute wayward apostrophes.
You are at somewhat of a watershed: either a pedant in recovery or someone exhibiting slightly pedantic tendencies. There is hope.
You are truly post-pedantic. A businesslike correction rather than red-faced outrage is your typical response to misplaced punctuation. You’re cool with bending the rules, as long as the result is stylish and unambiguous writing.
Some observations on the answers
Q1. Starting sentences with ‘And’. It’s just fine, period. Check out our rant on the subject, which, as the most visited page on the Plain Text website, clearly shows this is still a live question.
Q2. Ending sentences with a preposition: Winston Churchill had the last word on this one, describing it as the sort of petty rule “up with which I will not put”.
Q3. Split infinitives. Never a problem, really. What if Star Trek’s mission had been “Boldly to go where no man has ever been before”? Space wouldn’t have been nearly so exciting.
Q4. Mistakes in apostrophes. Fiercely annoying to those who intuitively know the rules. But try explaining that “It’s hand” is wrong while “Peter’s hand” is right to someone who lacks the intuition.
Q5. US English. Get over it, Brits.
Q6. Hyphens. Don’t fret about them unless there’s a real risk of ambiguity. This sentence should of course have one but can work fine without: “Our long term strategy is to seek organic growth in Asia”.
Q7. Innit. Of course it’s not appropriate for business. But it illustrates how language evolves to be more efficient.
Q8. Job titles. The customer is always right.
Q9. Web copy. Write in whatever length, format and style your readers like. Stats will tell you whether it’s working.
Q10. Bulleted lists. Simple and consistent.