Advice for snobs.

I’ve always been a bit of pedant about pedantry.

What I mean is that linguistic errors don’t bug me. Split your infinitives; use “literally” figuratively; pluralize “octopus” however you see fit. I won’t cringe or complain. To me, language is an ocean upon which we all sail, and freezing it in place would simply arrest all naval traffic (not to mention kill all the octopodes).

No, what bugs me is people getting bugged about language.

Policing “less” vs. “fewer”? Throwing fits over “her and I”? Unless you’re a professional copy editor, being paid for your pedantry, I see such behavior as hectoring perfectionism. It offends me far more than the offenses it aims to correct.

This allergy goes beyond language. I bristle at food snobs, music snobs, movie snobs. All snobs, really. To me, we’re all just silly, broken-hearted creatures, trying to find a little joy and ice cream during our handful of decades on Earth. I have no patience for silly, broken-hearted creatures thinking they’re better than the other silly, broken-hearted creatures.

But I’m guilty of a hypocrisy here, because I kind of love hearing from pedants and snobs.

Scratch a pedant, and you’ll probably find someone with an exquisite ear for language. Reading a volume of linguistic pedantry like Eats, Shoots & Leaves or Dreyer’s English, I’m inevitably charmed by the musical prose and the crisp aesthetics. Pedantry and poetry often go together: if a comma splice screeches like nails on a chalkboard, it’s perhaps because a well-timed colon sings to you like Ella Fitzgerald.

The domains where I’m snobbiest are the domains I know best. Make my hot chocolate thick and flavorful (and dump 80% of what’s out there down the drain). Make my sitcoms fast-paced and structurally inventive (and spare me anything CBS-inflected). Make my sci-fi short stories vivid, haunting, and conceptually rich (and in most years, let’s skip straight to the Hugo nominees).

The same may hold for mathematical snobs. Perhaps they’re so finicky about fine technical points because they have a kind of logical synesthesia. Edge cases glow in bright colors. Bad notation flashes in neon green. Errant calculations clang like melodies out of tune – which means, of course, that a good calculation fills the air like a chorus in harmony.

A snob is someone with an obnoxious insistence on their own aesthetic vision. If you can look past the insistence, the vision may be splendid.

Based on all this, I have some humble advice for snobs and pedants of all varieties.

First, the core of your snobbery is an aesthetic vision. That’s great! We can benefit from your vision!

Second, nitpicking “bad” stuff rarely helps. It just makes you seem like an obnoxious elitist. Sorry.

Third, celebrate good stuff instead. Hold up models of success. Sing their praises. Paint us a picture of what great music/food/sitcom gags look like. We peons stand to learn.

Last and most important: better taste doesn’t make you a better person. A human life is about kindness, compassion, service, and joy. It’s about solace in grief, humor in absurdity, and ice cream sandwiches in all seasons. If you happen to have a perfumer’s nose, then bully for you.

But if you think that makes you Better Than, you’ve only revealed how limited you’re aesthetic vision really is.

25 thoughts on “Advice for snobs.

  1. Thoroughly enjoyable! Quite disturbing trolling in the last sentence too, well played 😉

  2. I’m a big fan of selective pedantry, and I’m working on unlearning grammar-as-gatekeeping. I’ll never be able to shut off the little part of me that dies inside when someone uses “less” where it should be “fewer,” but I can bite my tongue and inwardly laugh at that part of me.

    I’m still working on what this means for proof writing. It’s good work to be doing.

    1. For what it’s worth, I applaud the part of you that’s so attuned the less/fewer distinction! It’s a kind of linguistic perfect pitch. And I also applaud the part of you that holds back from criticizing others when they strike a wrong note!

      And as for proof writing… yeah, that’s a very tough question.

      1. I will say this: your posts and fresh thinking are worth several thousand pounds of pedantic criticisms. And that’s quite a few. Different brains. I’d rather understand the joys of the mathematics language better than be cursed with my typo-finding copy-editing brain. We can’t help ourselves. We think it’s important but there are many things that are more important.

        1. And with apologies to the OP…I’m not used to the automatic alerts on replies so I thought I was replying to Ben’s post. Yes we comma mavens and less vs fewer mavens fee it’s important. I am Canadian and copy edit an American newsletter. That serial comma sometimes makes a huge difference in meaning. The author is now nearly completely trained to use it every time: it’s safer and easier that way. But you’re right. It’s not a hill worth dying on.

      2. Proof writing seems like it needs a degree of pedantry because it’s trying not to leave room for interpretation but instead impart the same meaning to all readers. I think of it as somewhat similar to writing computer code, possibly because both of them were things I spent a lot of time doing in college on minimal sleep.

        If you’re writing a program in C, you have to get your pointers exactly correct or you will be having a bad time with memory leaks and/or seg faults. When writing a proof, if you’re not precise in what it does and does not apply to and how you show that it applies in those cases, you may be leaving the mathematical equivalent of that memory issue.

        1. Mmm, that’s well said.

          Another thought: with teaching proofs, as with most math teaching, I find it helpful to play up the distinction of “wrong” vs. “unconventional.” If you’re trying to say 3x^4, and you say 12x, that’s wrong. Whereas if you say xx3xx, that’s weird and unconventional, but it means what you want it to mean.

          Whenever you’re learning a new communication system (whether it’s Algebra 1, or C, or rigorous proof), it’s important to learn the conventions. But it’s also important to learn that they are ONLY conventions.

  3. So I can leave square roots in the denominator?!?!

    That makes me feel as free as William Wallace!!!

  4. Oooo. The book is called “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”. In other words, a huge difference in meaning. Someone ate, shot, then left. As opposed to something which ate (consumed) shoots and leaves (all vegetable matter).

    But I get and love your point. Pedantry IS a bore. But as in language, it seems like in mathematics, accuracy is a plus (or a double minus haha!). Sometimes that serial comma matters. Keep being Ben. We love you. 🙂

  5. “Octopodes” is obviously and completely the correct pluralization of octopus. Anyone who says otherwise will be fed to the ill-tempered octopodes with laser beams on their freaking foreheads!

  6. Copyediting Pedantry: You want to complain about the prescriptivists on the first floor (US).
    I’m a descriptive copyeditor. Unless there’s a very good reason to step in, I will accept common usage as long as it’s clear and consistent, and I’ve pushed for singular ‘they’ _before_ it was in the style guides. If your audience understands it and it’s not disrespectful, I’ll leave it alone.

    Also, I admire the hexadecapus approach.

    1. Sounds like you take a great approach!

      My own copy editors have been good about allowing me my sentence fragments and whatnot, while trimming back my more pointless misbehavior. I don’t mind a little prescriptivism on certain technical matters, especially if there’s nothing stylistic at stake (e.g., I’m erratic about capitalizing the first letter after a colon; my copy editors have been good about enforcing a rule of “capitalize if what follows is a complete sentence, and leave uncapitalized if not”). But I definitely appreciate having a long leash!

  7. Dear Ben Orlin,

    I can see that you have laid some traps for language pedants in the final sentence of your post: “But if you think that makes you Better Than, you’ve only revealed how limited you’re aesthetic vision really is.”

    In any case,

    I have a deep-sounded fear.

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle Pedant

    PS: Let’s see what kind of pedant you may find in the post entitled “⚠️ Use WITH Caution Or Not At All 📝📜” at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/use-with-caution-or-not-at-all/

  8. When I was reading this article I thought of programming, which is probably an area where you actually need to be a snob for syntax (since the program would literally not work if you misplaced even one character). But there’s also some areas where you don’t need to be such a snob (like neatness).

    I’d also like to point out the correlation between mental health issues (or just overall dejectedness) and perfectionism. I’ve had a lot of experience with this in middle school and sometimes even now. I’d spend so much time putting effort into perfecting something that didn’t really matter and getting so worked up over it. When it was finally done I’d never share just how much time I put into it either. I guess this is like being a snob, except only to yourself.

    Anyway . . . thanks for writing these amazing articles. They’re truly insightful and I really enjoy reading then. <3

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