As the long-term editor of an English dictionary, I have arrived at the trouble with pedants: they cry foul too often. I have a sneaking suspicion that the desire to be right is more important to them than the desire to defend the language from degradation, which is what they claim to do. In many instances the transgression that they lament is simply an instance of language change (“agreeance” v “agreement”, for instance), or a variation that is accepted in the community but not their personal choice (the pronunciation of “schedule”), or an innovation that, conservative as they are by nature, they do not like (the use of “agenda” as a verb).

In the comments under a YouTube about gardening, a woman who describes herself as a purist – which is definitely claiming the high moral ground – calls out a gardening expert who was demonstrating how to repot clivias. He referred to the plant as a “klai-vee-uh” at the beginning of the show but then called it a “kli-vee-uh” later on. Both pronunciations are current, although the purist claimed that “klai-vee-uh” was the correct one since it was named after Lady Charlotte Clive, granddaughter of Clive of India. The only rule the presenter broke was the rule of consistency. If you are going to prefer one pronunciation over another where both pronunciations are current and valid, then you should stick to your choice. Otherwise you risk losing your audience while they fight over the different pronunciations, rather than attend to the intricacies of disentangling the roots of overgrown clivias.

We bumble along, scrapping and bickering over many little entanglements as inconsequential as this. It would be better if the pedants reserved their deep displeasure for the infelicities that really matter.

So when to care and when not to care? I do care when one word is being confused with another, especially when it is part of a phrase where the meaning of the individual word has become less important than the meaning of the whole phrase. For example, we find that increasingly we are handing over the “reigns” to someone else (as opposed to the “reins”), possibly because we are no longer familiar with driving a horse and carriage, or even riding horses, so that phrases like “the reins of power”, and “keeping a tight rein on expenses”, or “giving someone free rein”, all involving a sense of control, seem to be acquiring “reign” rather than “rein’.

Straight-out errors are always worth calling out. I cannot abide the way that “infamous” is used instead of “famous”. We used to have two words. A person was famous for very laudable reasons, and infamous because they had done something reprehensible. Famous – known for the right reasons. Infamous – known for all the wrong reasons. But now we talk about a great hero being infamous. This is simply wrong.

Some errors, however, become so entrenched that the community ceases to see them as mistakes. “Regardless” of how many times we are scolded for using “irregardless” instead, it seems that it makes no difference. The community has accepted “irregardless” for whatever reason. Maybe it sounds better. Maybe the extra syllable gives it more weight. Maybe a language community that is always looking for patterns, lines “irregardless” up with “irrespective” and finds that convincing. This is not actually a change that matters. There is no misunderstanding, no ambiguity, no break in the flow of communication.

Because that is what really matters. We want our speech and writing to be as clear to the person to whom we are communicating a message as it can possibly be. An error like “infamous” for “famous” makes us pause to consider what is meant. A reference to the “hoi polloi” to mean the rich and famous is disconcerting. A spelling like “alot” catches the eye and makes us consider the surface of the text rather than the meaning that lies beneath.

On the other hand I can quite happily live with variation in pronunciation. “Shed-yool” or “sked-yool” – it doesn’t matter. I can accept the phrase “in agreeance with” because I can see that it follows a pattern where states of mind end in “-ance”. I am regretful about the loss of the distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested” but I can live with it. “Bored of” instead of “bored with” is a change of preposition modelled on “tired of”. It doesn’t affect understanding.

Editors make decisions about what is distracting in a text based on their own experience as speakers of Australian English. A young editor would probably not be troubled by “bored of”, whereas an editor of an older generation would find it irritating. Generational change causes some of these arguments.

So pedants need to be more conscious of their place in the language community. That is to say, they are not necessarily at the centre of language change, and they cannot claim the right to be the sole arbiter of what is good and bad. It’s not all about them. And they should leave the “cli-vee-uhs” and the “clai-vee-uhs” alone!

Susan Butler AO was the founding editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Australia’s national dictionary, editing it from 1981 until 2017. Her latest book, Rebel Without a Clause, is out now through Pan MacMillan

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