On pedantry

TomGauld_Marvello

Tom Gauld’s response to reader’s letters about Steven Pinker’s article on grammatical rule breaking. The Guardian Review 23.08.14.

Do we need less or fewer pedants in this world? Well, according to Steven Pinker’s article in last weeks’ Guardian Review, (16.08.14), there are some grammatical ‘rules’ that we can afford to break. If you are convinced by his argument, then we can clearly agree we need less pedants in the world.

Personally I’m with him on this. There are just too many English language rules, many of which I have no knowledge of. And if you don’t know what they are, how can you change your behaviour? One of the problems with language pedants is they adopt a moral high ground that judges the character of the person who doesn’t quite get it right, despite the fact they may be communicating perfectly well.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have my pet peeves. My wife and step-daughter will warn anyone in my company they will fuel my wrath if they start a list-based sentence with ‘A’, and then progress to the second part of their list without saying ‘B’ beforehand. This in my mind is less about pedantry though, and more about committment. Worse though, they will tell you about my hatred of the use of the word ‘evocative’ to describe something without stating what it is evocative of! I find this particularly annoying if used to describe music. But again, this is less about pedantry and more about ensuring what you are saying actually makes sense.

Professionally however, when it comes to communicating clearly, use of language is important. My degree design students don’t know it yet, (they will find out in approximately one month, unless any of them read this post), but in one of my second year modules I ban certain words. That’s not quite true; I have a list of words and phrases that they aren’t allowed to use unless they are followed with a qualifying statement. For example, I don’t allow them to use the word bold. In and of itself, bold a meaningless describer for something visual unless it is being used when talking about a typeface, in which case it is entirely appropriate. Otherwise, it is just a subjective descriptor. I want my students to dig deeper than that—for starters, what makes something bold as opposed to not being bold? It is important to acknowledge such distinctions otherwise such phrases are meaningless. Likewise, the phrase ‘eye-catching’ has me thinking of someone playing ‘catch’ with an eyeball. What does eye-catching actually mean if it isn’t qualified; it is not something that can exist in its own vacuum. And while this might mark me out as a pedant to my students, it is an important aspect of design education, because as graphic designers we have to justify our rationale for the design decisions we make. We have to convince clients that we have analysed their communication problems and aim to successfully deliver their messages to their target audience, rather than employing our own artistic tastes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when we are designing we are not artists.

Despite not classing myself as a pedant, there is one area where I will confess to such a trait and that is when teaching typography. Students get sick of me discussing the difference between dashes and hyphens and appropriate usage of an ampersand. I’m not about to go into a typographic lesson here, but I think it is fair to say that there is a certain amount of pedantry at the heart of any typographer.

The contradictions in my views are not lost on me. Where I’m happy for the English language to be adapted over time, and accept this as part of a cultural/societal evolution, I am more resistant to the bastardisation of typographic constructs. But I equally accept that this is all they are, constructs—rules some people have mutually agreed to adopt that then become standards that others follow. Despite this dichotomy I am able to accept both my pedantry and that some of the things I believe in will fall out of usage by the simple fact others don’t accept it as that important as I do. I shudder that the em dash could disappear within my lifetime, but by rights, what should I really care?

Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen in the future of typography, I still believe it is important that graphic designers should understand what they are doing, (or not doing), and why, and to be able to justify their reasoning. The ability to communicate is at the heart of being a designer, and to choose to break ‘rules’ is fine if, A: you can demonstrate this is appropriate for the communication that needs to be delivered; and secondly: errr… if it makes a point.

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