In a literary work, a character that is pedantic might be someone who constantly corrects another’s grammar, is always ready with a new fact to make themselves sound smarter, or monitors events to make sure everything works out exactly as it’s supposed to. This is usually irritating behavior but will depend on the character and what the writer wants to accomplish.
Definition of Pedantic
The word “pendantic” comes from the French “pedant,” meaning “to teach” or “to act as a pedagogue.” A pedagogue a teacher, usually defined as one that’s strict. Someone who is pedantic, like a pedagogue, is concerned, usually overly concerned, with accuracy. They might also have high standards for a particular formal element/elements and one’s precision in everything they do. But, usually, it is related to the completion of tasks, academic work, and language. A writer might exhibit the character traits of a pedant in the way they write or they might choose to create a character who exhibits those qualities.
This person may engage in long, unnecessary explanations in an effort to show off their knowledge. Like most characters, pedantic qualities can be evidence of other personality traits that make someone more interesting. For example, if someone is always trying to insert themselves into conversations it may be because they’re self-conscious and worried they’re going to be left behind by everyone else. Or, they have doubts about their own intelligence and need to prove it to themselves and everyone else. It could also be something more insidious, like the need to dominate those around them.
Examples of Pedantic Language in Literature
Love’s Labor Lost by William Shakespeare
In this early comedy, believed to have been written in the mid-1590s, William Shakespeare tells the story of the King of Navarre and his attempts, along with three friends, to swear off women for three years. The play has a darker ending than most comedies do. It also contains a particularly noteworthy character when it comes to pedants, Holofernes. He’s a comic character who, although clearly knowledgable, delivers information in such a way that he appears foolish. For example, these lines from Act IV, Scene 2:
The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood; ripe
as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in
the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven;
and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra,
the soil, the land, the earth.
In these lines, he’s speaking to Sir Nathaniel and is attempting to impress him with his wide-ranging knowledge. Shakespeare intentionally created Holofernes as someone who takes advantage of every opportunity to display his knowledge.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Within Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, readers learn the story of Jay Gatsby and his quest to bring Daisy Buchanan, who is married to Tom, back to him. His lavish displays of wealth, parties, and his every other action are aimed at that one goal. But, as the novel progresses, things start to spin out of control. Tom is an integral part of that. He is also a good example of a pedant. He uses the following lines as he tries to display his intelligence:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
Nick replies, expressing surprise at his tone and answering “No.” And Tom adds these words:
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
In these lines, Tom is talking about “Civilization…going to pieces.” He’s citing examples from his life and Gatsby’s parties to back up his suggestions about the future. Although he expresses his opinion with confidence it’s hard to take him seriously due to his personality and the fact that these words were unprompted and unnecessary.
Pedantic or Didactic
While these two words sound similar and are related to similar situations, they aren’t the same. “Didactic” is used to describe educational material that tries to teach the reader something. In literature, it is an entire literary movement that includes instructive works and ones that are more entertaining. This could be a textbook, an article about a historical topic, or a diary of one’s personal experiences, In contrast, “pedantic” refers to a type of instruction that’s excessive and unasked for. It’s the delivery of information that’s more important than the information itself. Someone who is a pedant is concerned with looking smart and ensuring the conversation remains focused on them.
Why Do Writers Use Pedantic Language?
Depending on the situation, there are various reasons a writer might use pedantic language or create a character who exhibits the traits of a pedant. In the above examples, the writer has intentionally tried to influence the reader’s opinion of fictional characters through the way they talk to one another and share unsolicited opinions. Tom Buchanan, an already unlikeable man, is made more irritating by the fact that he attempts to sound smart and control conversations.
In another situation, a writer might write with a pedantic tone when they’re overly passionate about a topic or are attempting to convey that particular tone for an exterior purpose. It’s also easy to imagine how someone might adopt this tone on accident, without intending to do so.
Related Literary Terms
- Didacticism: refers to a type of literature that’s mean to convey instructions or very specific pieces of information.
- Literary Argument: the argument of a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
- Metafiction: stories in which the characters, author, or narrator acknowledge the fact that they’re parts of fiction.
- Simile: a comparison between two, unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as.”
- Stream of Consciousness: a style of writing in which thoughts are conveyed without a filter or clear punctuation.
- Read: How Didactic Art Could Be Less Boring
- Read: Why Do Pedants Pedant?
- Watch: What’s the Difference Between Didacticism and Meaning in a Story?