Miles Kington Remembered: Hooked on linguistic purity? Fear not – help is at hand

20 May 2002

We have all met them. People who take the niceties of language far too seriously. People who tick you off for using "infer" when you meant "imply", or "refute" instead of "rebut". People who faint when you split an infinitive. People who wave a stick angrily when you say "less than six", and make you say "fewer then six". People who actually know the difference between "due to" and "owing to", and insist that you do, too.

Pedants, they are called.

But what they really are is addicts. Addicts to linguistic purity. They are to language what obsessive-cleanliness people are to their own homes.

And now there is a body set up to deal with this addiction. It is called Pedants Anonymous, or PA, and people who realise that grammatical correctness has taken over their lives can now go there to talk through the problems with others of the same ilk.

Actually, strictly speaking, I used "of the same ilk" inaccurately just then, but after a few attendances at PA meetings I am beginning to feel that it does not matter as much as it did. I, too, am beginning to feel cured of this crippling dependence on correctness. Though it has been a struggle... I remember the very first time I was asked to stand up and talk about my case.

"My name is K..." I began, but was interrupted at once by a professorial-looking lady.

"Can one strictly use a capital letter as a name?" she said. "Just a trivial point. Of no importance. But worth bringing up, I think. After all, a name is a name, but a letter is an initial."

"What about Malcolm X?" said someone. "That was his name, wasn't it?"

"What about all those characters in Kafka's books called 'K'?" said someone else.

"What about people who have middle initials that stand for nothing?" said a young man who I was later told was one of Britain's leading pop philosophers. "It was always said that the S in Harry S Truman was just an initial. But it's part of his name, surely? Just a trivial point. But worth making ..."

"Perhaps we could just let Mr K continue with his statement," said the group leader. "Carry on, please."

"Well," I said, "I have several problems. One is my compulsion to find spelling mistakes on restaurant menus. But my worst habit is a terrible urge to correct other people when they make mistakes. I do realise I have a choice. Either I can ignore the mistake, or I can correct it, or I can lead by example..."

"As a matter of interest," said the lady professor again, "I do feel it is wrong to use 'either... or' when there are three alternatives. 'Either... or' is strictly for two, is it not? It's very unimportant, I know. I just thought that..."

I found out that one of the basic rules of Pedants Anonymous is that whenever you give in to the urge to correct someone, you should add a remark about how trivial it is. Sooner or later, the idea is, you will come to see just how trivial it really is. I also found out that people do find it incredibly hard to overcome this addiction, but that they find comfort in each other's problems. In fact, I found this out in the five seconds that followed.

"When it comes to pedantry," I told the group, "I find that one of the biggest difficulties that has always prevented me looking for a cure..."

Before I could say "is that I never admitted I had a pro blem", there was a roar of laughter from the whole group, and they all looked at each other conspiratorially.

"I am afraid, K," said the group leader, "that you committed one of the commonest errors there. Of course, what you should have said is 'one of the biggest difficulties that have always prevented me looking for a cure...' It's a plural subject and needs a plural verb. But what was great about that was that nobody corrected you. They laughed at you, yes. But the joke was unspoken. They actually resisted the urge to point out your error."

"What is so useful about these meetings," said someone, "is that we are all experts on language, and therefore skilled sufferers. Alcoholics are just people who drink. But pedants have great acquired knowledge. Our knowledge causes our trouble. And when we are all pedants together, we know who we are dealing with."

"We know with whom we are dealing," muttered someone.

There was a general cry of "Fine! Fine!" and the last speaker, to general merriment, was forced to put a pound in the fine box.

More from Pedants Anonymous some other time, I hope.