The relationship between excellence and joy is subtle

Debbie, a friend of mine from college, is an excellent singer. But the standards in her musical family were high. She told the story of how her uncle, a virtuoso clarinetist, would listen to her singing as they were driving and say “Debbie, you’re modulating!” She wasn’t rehearsing. She wasn’t training her voice. She was in the car, in transit between Points A and B, making a joyful noise. And old Uncle Perfect Pitch just had to poop on her singing. Silence was his reward, may it serve him well.

Does pedantry stem from a desire for excellence or a salve for insecurity? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but in general it’s the worst kind of tedium. In my opinion, rule-following en route to joy is altogether worthy. Rule-following en route to a job is often necessary. But rule-following to satisfy pedants is a misery. Sometimes joy is remote from us, but too often those who have lost all joy compensate by hardening their grip on rules. Any stick will do when you need to beat someone for your sins.

From the Language Log I found this lovely animated monologue. The animator is Matt Rogers, and the speaker is British comedian Stephen Fry. Here’s a slice of Fry for you on the subject of pedants.

They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs… But do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language?

Now give the whole thing a listen and try to forget that it sounds an awful lot like John Cleese.

7 thoughts on “The relationship between excellence and joy is subtle”

  1. I never thought of Stephen Fry as sounding anything like John Cleese, but he certainly does is this rant! This is the Stephen Fry I think of (for the uninitiate, he’s the General, and yes, that’s House):

  2. Wonderful, both Stephen Fry’s perspective and your introduction with the musical real-world example. I have to admit to skewing more to “observational pedantry” when it comes to language (i.e., I tend to notice incorrectness but keep it to myself…or complain to my wife…while feeling some small degree of superiority), but I don’t think I’m militant about it. And I do greatly enjoy the tickles and the sound-sex (did I get that right?) when I see/hear it, regardless of spelling, typological, or grammatical accuracy.

    What irritates me more, perhaps, than unintentional mistakes are the intentional ones, the ones that people could correct if they wanted to, but are playing at something (e.g., “nucular”). I’ll try to take your and Fry’s lesson to heart, but will forever fight those faux usages!

  3. I like the observation that language needs standard forms in the same way that electricity needs a standard voltage. There’s nothing innately God-approved about 115 volts AC, but it is useful for commerce (and electric shavers) when we all agree. What bugs me is when people talk about language as though it had an immutable God-approved form. While they’re snickering, it’s mutating right out from under them.

  4. I have a basic hypocrisy when it comes to language. I’m normally one of the people who rallies against the pedants, explaining that language is defined by those who speak it, and not a cabal of language-guardians in some musty room. You know what? You can split an infinitive, you can put a preposition at the end of a sentence, and by god passive voice can be used by you.

    But even as I say that, I will shudder whenever I see or hear text speak used. Even if it’s being used in a text.

  5. I agree with Stephen Fry, and particularly liked the line about
    using good grammar in formal contexts like job interviews not because it’s “correct” (as opposed to “incorrect”), but because it’s appropriatey fo the context.
    Ned – this was a great line: “while they’re snickering, it’s mutating right out from under them.

  6. I agree with the spirit of the post and the video. There is a time and place for precision in words and grammar, and a time when the rules can be set aside.

    But, and I think this is an important distinction, one can’t know when to bend/break the rules if one doesn’t know and understand the rules in the first place. There is a difference between a songwriter deliberately choosing “lie” over “lay” because it sounds better in the tune, and someone making the same “mistake” due to ignorance or apathy. As a part-time pedant, I want to enjoy and appreciate the latter usage (without getting my grammatical shorts in a bunch), and gently correct the latter (without being snooty).

  7. In my previous reply, I meant “former” in the former usage of “latter”, and “latter” in the latter usage of “latter.” But no one was going to pedantically correct that, were they? ;-)

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