Pedantry and Autism: a love story

Pedantry: noun. Excessive concern with minor details and rules; over-commitment to formalism, accuracy and precision; prioritising of simple knowledge (facts and rules and obscurantism) over more general knowledge and/or common sense. Used in a negative context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a pedant. I have always been a pedant and likely always will be. It stems from the black-and-white thinking style of my autism, my propensity for rote learning and my obsession with the little things, especially my ability to see the minutiae of the trees yet somehow spectacularly miss the forest. I speak ‘correctly’, even though I acknowledge there is no ‘correct’ way to speak; I try to ensure that I am one-hundred percent accurate in everything I say and write, while accepting that perfection is an impossible dream; and I follow the rules, no matter how stupid or seemingly arbitrary.

Despite its negative reputation, I don’t think being a pedant is necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you correct people on their grammar or point out the factual and logical fallacies of their arguments, it’s often seen as arrogant, condescending and belittling. To quote Ben Shapiro, however: facts don’t care about your feelings. Thanks to my autism, and unfortunately for those around me, I’m far more committed to the facts than I am to anybody’s feelings.

It is not my intention to hurt people’s feelings, though. Correcting them when they make a mistake is how I communicate and share my love of language and history with those around me. Much of the time, when I interrupt the flow of the conversation to tell somebody the true meaning and origin of a phrase they’ve misused, it is done with good intentions and because I think it’ll enrich their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Partly, it’s to show off and try to impress people.

Only sometimes do I do it to be a dick.

But while I can say it comes from a place of genuine concern for the intellectual development of my fellows, another and probably equally important factor is that I can’t not do it. Inaccuracies cause me pain. My cringe-factor is turned up to eleven every time I hear something that’s patently wrong and the only way of alleviating that crushing horror is to put them straight. I can’t let them walk around being wrong. Entitled? Yes, you could probably call me that. But would you rather suffer a momentary embarrassment and then go through the rest of your life being right, or keep on exposing your ignorance to everyone who knows the truth?

It’s been said that the moment an Englishman speaks, another Englishman judges him, so it’s important to get it right. It’s not ‘I drunk it’ but ‘I drank it’, not ‘could of’ but ‘could have’, and there are no such words as supposably, irregardless, and expresso. I imply, you infer; a chicken lays an egg but people lie down; and if I affect something, I create an effect. Unique means ‘one of a kind’, so things cannot be quite unique or very unique, and if you say ‘reverse back’ or ‘past history’, you’re using one word too many. Little things, but they go a long way.

It’s hard to blame people, however, when everywhere they’re exposed to poor grammar. Songs called ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’; pop culture expressions like ‘You sunk my battleship’; movies entitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. No wonder so many people think that you are hanged, not hung, or that you can ‘literally’ die of embarrassment, yet still be able to tell the tale. And don’t get me started on there, their and they’re.

Misused idioms also hit my ear like nails down a chalkboard. It’s not ‘chomping’ at the bit, it’s ‘champing’, referring to an eager horse biting down on its metal mouthpiece; a damp ‘squib’ is a small explosive device, not a tentacled sea-creature; and ‘tenter hooks’ stretch hides over a wooden frame to make them anything but tender. Language evolves, sure, but there have to be standards, otherwise we’ll all end up speaking gibberish and nobody will be able to understand each other.

I can’t stand people promoting falsehoods either, like the guy who sat in front of me on a ferry into Portsmouth one time, who pointed to HMS Warrior and told his wife it was HMS Victory. That might seem minor, but come on – how can you mistake the legendary Victory of Trafalgar and Nelson fame, a wooden-hulled 1765 first rate triple decker ship-of-the-line that is an integral part of British history and national identity, with an iron-hulled 1860 armoured frigate? How could I not correct that error? It’s something every schoolboy should know.

But the most egregious recent example I’ve come across is in Jon Sopel’s bestseller If Only They Didn’t Speak English. As North America Editor for BBC World News, he should know a thing or two about a) facts and b) accuracy, yet when writing about race relations in the US, an incendiary topic that demands care and attention, he displays an unforgivable ignorance. He writes about ‘the literally millions of Africans rounded up and shipped off in the most appalling, fetid conditions to the East Coast of America’, and how ‘twelve and a half million people left the ports of Africa and came to America in leg irons’. All of this suggests that the slave trade was centred on the US and that it’s an exceptional case in world history, a view that supports certain political ideologies but is entirely inaccurate.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery was awful and I don’t wish to minimise the suffering of those affected, but sensationalism and emotion should never take the place of cold, hard facts. Luckily, these are readily available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, thanks largely to the work of professors David Eltis and David Richardson of Emory University. Of around 12.5 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the period 1519-1867, fewer than 350,000 – less than 5% of the total – went to what is now the United States. Around 40% went to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, 11% to Jamaica and the rest around the Caribbean and South America.

It is therefore wholly inaccurate to claim that ‘literally millions’ of Africans were shipped to the East Coast of America’ or that ‘Twelve and a half million people…came to America in leg irons.’ More than that, it’s irresponsible as it feeds into the myth of American Exceptionalism and continues to inflame racial tensions. I would have expected a person of Sopel’s background to be more careful with his facts. I would also have expected this misinformation to be picked up on and corrected in the subsequent editions, but it has not, meaning thousands of readers around the world will read it and believe that ‘millions’ of Africans slaves were shipped to the US, and use this ‘fact’ to inform their erroneous view of the world. And that annoys the hell out of me.

(To provide further context, the peak figure of American slavery was 3.9 million, recorded in the 1860 census. Furthermore, in the same period that less than 350,000 African slaves were shipped to America (388,000 according to some sources), more than a million Europeans were held as slaves in Africa.)

Pedantry might be seen as bad, petty, unkind and inflexible, but sometimes, as in the Jon Sopel slavery case, it is by far the better approach than playing fast and loose with the facts. As an autistic individual, pedantry is in my nature, as it is in many others who share my condition. We thrive in academia, in the sciences, in linguistics, where accuracy and obsession over the minutiae are seen as strengths instead of poor social skills. And who knows? One day, the difference between the survival of the species and our unfortunate extinction might come down to somebody spotting a single misplaced integer.

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