Pedantry, goat-getting, and excitement fatigue

February 18, 2016

To put it mildly, I’m quite pedantic. On a CV, I might be able to frame it as a positive and say that I pay close attention to details, but the truth is that I’m a tiresome pernickety nitpicker.

In particular, sloppy use of language gets my goat. Here are some of the things that wind me up - for some reason, I feel the need to get them off my chest.

People saying less when they mean fewer

I’m not one of those people who thinks that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because people use slang or text-speak. I believe language is a living thing that evolves and mutates and is all the more interesting for it. But I also think that things like the distinction between countable and uncountable nouns help provide a richness to the language, and it’s a shame when we fail to make the most of that richness.

People saying tracks when they mean songs

When a radio DJ has a band playing in session, and they ask the band to play another track, it really riles me. Not least because I’d love to be doing their job, and I’m slightly bitter about it. A track is a piece of recorded music. When it’s live, it’s not a track.

Very unique

I feel like I’m losing this battle, but there are no degrees of uniqueness. Very unusual, fair enough, but something is either unique or it isn’t, so it makes no sense to talk about the gradation of its uniqueness.

Excessive exclamation

I’m not the first person to get riled by multiple exclamation marks, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that there’s too much hyperbole in the world, especially in the media. Whether it’s Zane Lowe and Jo Whiley talking about music or the likes of Jonathan Pearce and Peter Brackley talking about football, a lot of media commentators seem to take an absurdly uncritical view of their subject. It’s as if they’re afraid that they won’t be allowed to carry on watching if they say anything negative about the Emperor’s new clothes.

I don’t believe that the excitement can be genuine. Did Jonathan Pearce really find Robot Wars as exciting as a last-minute cup final winner? If you really are this excited by something so mediocre, how do you react when you encounter something that truly is amazing or fantastic? If you’ve already used up your fanciest superlatives on something ordinary, where do you go from there? It’s a kind of grade inflation - is it possible to introduce an adjective equivalent of the A*? Similar to compassion fatigue, I think I’m suffering from excitement fatigue - I’d much rather hear from a critic than a cheerleader, and I generally prefer it if those critics speak softly and carry a big stick.

Meaningless words

Everyone hates management-speak - it would be redundant to attack it again here. Surely even the people who use it must do so with a kind of ironic detachment these days, even those who work in consulting. But still it persists. There are also words that people throw around without really considering their meaning. In my work as a web developer, the ones that come up a lot include ‘agile’, ‘deployment’, ‘unit test’ and, surprisingly frequently, portal. That last in particular troubles me - what’s the difference between a portal and any other website?

I like this suggestion from Oliver Markus: “The secret to good writing is to use small words for big ideas, not to use big words for small ideas.”

Pleonasm and Tautology

Why use more words than you need? The most common example I hear is “10am in the morning”, which suggests a kind of verbal incontinence. Unless you’re achieving a desirable stylistic effect, it’s just noise, and noise that makes it sound like you’re not thinking about what you’re saying. To me, that lack of thought is often related to a (probably subconscious) lack of respect for the listener and/or the conversation.

Unnecessary abbreviations

Much as I admire concision, it can be taken too far. I’ve already written about this in another blog post - suffice to say, there’s rarely an occasion when you’re in such a hurry that saying full words would just take too long.

There are a lot more annoyances, but I should probably just learn to take a deep breath and ignore them. Incidentally, the article I found while checking that I understood the difference between pleonasm and tautology got me thinking about the similarities between editing prose and refactoring code - there’s probably a blog post in that somewhere…