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, and 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.



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