Column: On being ‘pedantic’


Question: “Mr. Fischer, you may have heard about Jeb Bush’s run-in with a college student this week who seemed to be grammatically challenged. Perhaps your column could deal with the proper use of the word ‘pedantic’ when berating a politician. Love your column. You rain! I mean, reign.” (John Reichmann, Westfield)

Answer: You know, John, people might say this column is a sterling example of pedantry in its own right. That being said: Onto Mr. Bush’s run-in with Ms. Ivy Ziedrich.

A little bit of background, courtesy of the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro: Jeb Bush (presumptive presidential candidate Jeb Bush?) had just finished a town hall meeting at the University of Nevada when 19-year-old Ivy Ziedrich asked him if he would take a student question.

She then proceeded to, as John puts it, “berate” Bush about how his brother’s presidential policies had, in her view, directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, concluding her statement by saying, “Your brother created ISIS.”

Bush responded with, “All right. Is that a question?” At which point Ziedrich suggested he was being pedantic.

So, was he?

Pedantry is an “excessive concern with minor details and rules” or an “excessive or inappropriate display of learning.”

Politicians frequently resort to pedantry to avoid tough questions – attacking the form of a question, rather than answering it directly. Probably the best example of political pedantry is former President Bill Clinton’s infamous “it depends upon what the definition of ‘is,’ is,” statement.

On the other hand, as anyone who has ever been to a city council meeting can tell you, many people are looking to turn a question-and-answer opportunity into a diatribe against whatever it is they’ve decided needs yelling about.

The bottom line here is, if you want a politician to answer your question, it needs to be formed thus, and not as exposition. And, while I’m confident Mr. Bush has been plenty pedantic in the past, it does not seem like his comments fit the definition here.

As always, thanks for reading. I await your rebuttals on the irony of writing a 370-word grammar column dissecting whether or not something a politician said was pedantic.

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