Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The point of pedantry - John Dougherty

We had a science teacher at our secondary school who, on this date every year, would send some hapless first year to one of his colleagues with a request for a long stand. Or, occasionally, a big weight.

Even then, I always thought the 'long stand' was the better gag (not much better, but that was about as sophisticated as humour got at our school). After all, you wouldn't normally talk about 'a big wait'; it would be a long wait, wouldn't it? But of course if he'd requested a long wait, a child who'd been warned about the 'long stand' prank might make the connection.

I've been thinking lately about how it's on this sort of care with words, and this sort of awareness of the meanings of words, that good writing often rests. Probably it's particularly on my mind at the moment because I've been going through the proofs for my next book, Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom, and one of the things to be aware of - at this stage at least as much as any other - is that sometimes a phrase which carries your meaning perfectly adequately can also carry another meaning. It's not enough to think, "Does this say what I want it to?" - there should also be a small part of the writer's brain asking, "Does this say anything I don't want it to?"

My son was recently reading a book in which a character - in a environment very familiar to him - is looking for somewhere to hide. There are a lot of short, sharp sentences to emphasise the urgency of the situation - "His enemy was getting closer. He looked round," that sort of thing - and then comes the sentence, "A great oak tree grew in the corner of the field." Reading on, it's fairly clear that the writer means that there was a great oak tree in the corner of the field that had been growing there for some years and which was still alive and therefore growing; but when I read the sentence, it caused me to stumble internally, because for a moment I wondered if the writer might mean that as the character watched, a tree began to grow and in a matter of seconds was very large.

Some of you may think I'm just being pedantic - and you wouldn't be the first - but to my mind, pedantry's a much underrated pastime; and in my defence, there were a number of factors that made this a not entirely unreasonable supposition:
  • the story was a fantasy, set in a fantasy land, and magical things were already happening in the scene
  • the short, sharp sentences were setting me up to expect events - x happened, then y happened, then w happened (surprising everyone who was expecting z next) - rather than description
  • since the character was in a familiar environment, looking for somewhere to hide, I'd have expected him to know that the tree was there; being told 'he looked round' and then 'a tree grew', rather than 'he saw the tree' threw me a bit
See what I mean? It's the sort of thing any of us could do, and it doesn't even qualify as a mistake, but it's something to be wary of. As is the sort of double meaning on the sign I passed the other day, whilst out for a run: "Please do not allow your dog to foul on the golf course." Yes, I know what it means; but if the signwriter had omitted the word 'on' it would have carried exactly the same intended meaning, without conjuring up in my head the picture of a Jack Russell slyly using its niblick to knock another dog's ball into the rough. Or, as the Jack Russell might put it, ruff.

So for me, there really is a point to pedantry. It helps to keep us sharp; it helps to make us think about the words we use and the potential, as well as actual, meanings they carry. And while no-one will love you for being pedantic all the time, we writers really ought to make sure we're in touch with our own inner pedants - at least while we're at our desks.

I'm going to leave you with one more sign; one I snapped last year when I was in Dublin for the Children's Books Ireland festival. I have no idea whether the owner was aware of the potential double meaning, but it's provided at least one dieting friend with a bit of focus.


Anne Rooney said...

I'm with you on the pedantry! Isn't it surprising how many people get really annoyed about it, though? Even when it is in their interests to follow the pedant's advice? Love the Soon Fat take-away, but I doubt I could bring myself to buy food there!

Brian Keaney said...

There is a Garth Nix book in which he describes a lot of refugees lined up at the border waiting for deportment.

Nick Green said...

A relative of mine had a form teacher who was fond of saying, 'Watch the board while I run through it.'

As to Chinese restaurants – I've often wondered if some of them are deliberate puns. There's one in Soho called Wong Kei – known by its patrons as Wonky's. And it is. Their famous selling point is that the staff are spectacularly rude. So much so that, when they tried to improve their image, there were complaints that the service had become too cordial.

John Dougherty said...

Just realised Blogger cropped the sign, which wasn't quite as ridiculous as it appeared.

Anyone remember Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours? I've just remembered a scene in which Arkwright deliberately misspelled a sign in the shop window, on the grounds that passing pedants would come in to correct him and then buy something while they were there...