A pedant (PEHdint) is a person who is overly concerned with minor details and rules in the presentation or use of knowledge. Pedants are excessively preoccupied with displaying their knowledge, often to the detriment of the information they share.
Pedants are commonly characterized as annoying because their obsessive focus on miniscule details or their supercilious, insistent expertise in a boring or narrow topic of little interest to their audience.
The word pedant was first used in English in the 1580s and meant “schoolmaster.” It derives from the Middle French pédant (1560s) or the Latin peddante (“teacher, schoolmaster”), which is an alteration of the Late Latin paedagogantem, meaning “person who trumpets minor points of learning” (first recorded in the 1590s).
The Societal Perception of Pedants
A common view of the pedant is that they are someone who cannot see the forest for the trees. They focus so acutely on small details or rules that they irritate those around them and often fail to successful impart their knowledge. Unsurprisingly, they’re not popular people, although as characters in books, movies, and television shows, they can provide a great deal of comic relief.
According to Sigmund Freud in The Ego and the Id, “The pedant is he who finds it impossible to read criticism of himself without immediately reaching for his pen and replying to the effect that the accusation is a gross insult to his person. He is, in effect, a man unable to laugh at himself.” Educator William Chandler Bagley pointed out the dangers of pedants in his Craftsmanship in Teaching when he warned that “[t]he pedant still does the cause of education incalculable injury.”
Pedant vs. Pedantic
Pedant and pedantic are commonly used terms. The noun pedant originally referred to a household tutor or a schoolteacher, but early in the late 16th century, it took on a negative connotation. The adjective pedantic, meaning “ostentatious in one’s learning” or “overly concerned with minute details and rules, especially in teaching,” has had negative connotations since its beginnings in the 17th century.
In the early days of the term’s use, a pedant was not necessarily pedantic. But, since the 17th century, one cannot be a pedant without being pedantic. One can, however, be a pedant without necessarily being a teacher or tutor.
Pedantic vs. Didactic
The terms pedantic and didactic are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.
Didactic is more nuanced than many people realize. Didacticism is a literary movement encompassing written works that both instruct and entertain. In an educational setting, the word didactic is often used to categorize instruction that involves textbooks and lectures, not clinical or laboratory work. It also references certain technical contexts involved in theories of teaching. None of these usages hold negative connotations.
While didactic indicates that something is instructional, pedantic implies that the instruction involves an excessive concern with minutia and rules rather than placing the emphasis on truly imparting knowledge.
Examples of Pedants in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost
Shakespeare introduces the character of Holofernes, the Pedant in Act IV. In Scene II, Holofernes displays his pedantry in the following speech:
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.
Although Holofernes’s vast and specific knowledge impresses and charms the foolish Sir Nathaniel, he is a comic character; the audience is meant to laugh at his overly showy and redundant language.
2. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Nabokov’s Pale Fire is structured as a narrative poem by fictitious poet John Shade. It’s accompanied by a forward, lengthy commentary, and index written by the pedantic character Charles Kinbote, Shade’s neighbor and academic colleague. Fairly early in the “Forward,” Kinbote relates a conversation with one of Shade’s publishers:
…my interlocutor observed: “You’ll be happy to know, Dr. Kinbote, that Professor
So-and-so [one of the members of the Shade committee] has consented to act as our
Advisor in editing the stuff.”
Now “happy” is something extremely subjective. One of our sillier Zemblan
proverbs says: the lost glove is happy. Promptly I refastened the catch of
my briefcase and betook myself to another publisher.
Throughout the “Forward,” “Commentary,” and “Index” sections, Kinbote attempts to put Shade’s poem into context but cannot resist focusing on himself and the country Zembla, which he claims as his homeland. His focus on Zembla, in addition to his amusingly rococo diction, illustrate his pedantic nature.
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Early in Fitzgerald’s classic novel, the character Tom Buchanan rails against what he considers the decline of civilization, citing a book he’s reading:
Civilization’s going to pieces…Have you read “The Rise of the Coloured Empires” by this man Goddard? […] 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 […]I know I’m not very popular. I don’t give big parties. I suppose you’ve got to make your house into a pigsty in order to have any friends—in the modern world.
Tom’s argument that popularity and parties are proof that the modern world is “going to pieces” is indicative of his pedantry, as he focuses on relaying the “scientific stuff” from the questionable book he is reading.
As a side note, the book Tom cites, while fictional, is most likely an allusion to two bestselling books of the time—Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race—both of which espoused similar racist views.
Further Resources on Pedants
The Guardian’s Dave Steele wrote a wonderful article exploring “Why do pedants pedant?”
Listverse has an entertaining list of “10 Impressive Examples of Dedication to Pedantry.”