The Point of Pedantry

This post, by John Dougherty, originally appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure on 4/1/09.

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

Read the rest of the post on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.