Suppose that you’re telling a story. It is a grand story, too. Full of lust and adventure, with ominous threats and feats of astounding courage and cunning, this is an episode none should miss, which you’ll be happy to share anew with many different groups and passersby.
And then suppose that, right as you approach the climactic moment of your story—when you should happen to say, “we couldn’t believe how much data we got”—a member of your audience interrupts by pointing out, “data is quantifiable, actually, so you would say ‘how many data’, not ‘how much data’.”
That, of course, quite thoroughly takes the wind of your story’s sails. And you might wonder what sort of accusatory word you could apply to this person to indicate that—while they might be right about the point of fact—their decision to interject it in the middle of your story was decidedly inappropriate.
That word, you’ll be pleased to know, is: pedantic (peh’DAN’tik). A person is being pedantic when they obsess over the fine minutiae of something in a way that is beyond what’s called for or, indeed, interfering.
To be pedantic is to demonstrate an excessive interest in formalities and details, and in particular when in situations of learning. The pedantic student is one who derails the entire class by obsessing at length about a very fine point to which even the professor may not know the full answer. A pedantic professor, on the other hand, is one who loses track of the subject material being taught by focusing too intently on such fine points as to distract from the overall concept.
Often, it’s possible to tell when someone is behaving pedantically as they start a sentence with the word, “Technically”, as in, “Technically, that’s not a 747-8; it’s a 747-8I” or “Technically, the square root of four isn’t two; it’s plus or minus two.”
While there is nothing wrong, necessarily, with being interested in knowing as much as possible about a subject, what makes one pedantic is their disproportionate interest in the details relative to the larger idea. It is disproportionate at the point where it becomes a nuisance. By definition, therefore, to be pedantic is to not just to have an overdeveloped interest in mastering every possible element of a thing, but to do so in an ostentatious, often slightly obnoxious way.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is Jet Fuel Review’s prose editor. He is double-majoring in Physics and Air Traffic Control Management at Lewis, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer. Mark is a junior and works as a ramp traffic controller at O’Hare and at Panera Bread, from which he does not steal dozens of bagels every day.