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We won’t have less mistakes if we have fewer pedants

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

How much that headline irritates you, might depend on how much of a language pedant you are. Of course, it should be fewer on both occasions and not ‘less’. I write this because of recent exposure to mistakes that may or may not matter to people, but you could argue fall into the pedant category. As a News Editor I was often called an annoying pedant. This partly comes from insecurity (I left school at 16 and have no degree) and a desire to learn and feel educated. At 23 I was told by a radio colleague that I said ‘anything’ with a K sound at the end. I was devastated. I corrected the error in speech and then, like a reformed smoker, have spent my life hugely irritated when I hear others doing it.

I also think, though, that it is important to get things right. A recent tweet from a court reporter reminded us that in the UK, people do not 'take the stand'. Instead it should be 'give evidence'. There is no 'stand' and people are instead in a witness box. This is an Americanism and it is right to highlight. But if you say ‘take the stand’ everyone knows what you mean. So does it matter? I think it does.

From big things to small, getting it right should be important. A Times newspaper front page headline once referred to ‘Lake Windermere’, which of course is tautological. The mere indicates it’s a mass of water, so it’s just Windermere. This is a common mistake but that doesn’t excuse it. Like ‘taking the stand’ some errors become common by repetition or just by lazy journalism. Does it really matter if you refer to the 'Mercury Music Prize' when it's just called the Mercury Prize; and if you say I went to see Big Ben - when all you actually saw was Elizabeth Tower, then no one will correct you (unless you’re unfortunate to be at my dinner party!). Big Ben is, of course, the bell inside, not the clock face or building.

When you work in news, the need for accuracy is greater of course. Having standards, means that checks across all of your content are stricter. On a recent podcast I was producing, the presenter said ‘Tescos’ rather than Tesco. Many people do it in conversation, but it’s wrong. A simple mistake to highlight and re-record. But for this podcast, being accurate with names, pronunciation and grammar really matters. I wasn’t called a pedant, I was thanked.

People make mistakes and in radio and podcasting, a producer should be like a sub-editor, ensuring things are right, or made even better. It’s a really undervalued role and you can hear the podcasts that don’t have a strong producer overseeing the final content. On a recent UK podcast series the presenter says scheduled with a K sound at the start (which is American) and also says wander instead of wonder at the start of every episode. It’s not a terrible error, but it’s wrong. It means I listen with a little less trust.

That’s why being a pedant is good. If you make errors - big or small - listeners or readers will lose faith in the product. It’s like seeing a boom mic in a TV show or film. Something is immediately lost. Mistakes can be incorrect pronunciations, factual errors, poor grammar or poor production (bad edits etc). It’s about accepting that correcting them is not pedantry but good subbing. A senior colleague recently told me their publications can no longer afford sub-editors. I feel you lose more than you gain financially by making that decision.

My gift to you is a final small pronunciation error I hear a lot. Once you notice it, it may annoy you too. Every day, on radio and TV, I hear someone say ‘antil’ instead of ‘until’. Where it comes from I’m not sure, but sharing that with you helps my irritation!

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