I woke up and looked at my alarm clock. It told me what the time was – well, roughly… I need to check sometime which of my various clocks has the right time – the one in the kitchen is a few minutes different to the one on my computer, and the one in the car tends to need adjusting now and again, and since I hardly ever listen to the news on the radio, I hardly ever get to find out which of all my various time-indicating devices is correct.
But I don’t worry about it too much, because I’m not leading the sort of life in which every second counts, and as long as I know roughly what the time is, as long as the error is on the scale of just a few minutes, I’m okay with that.
On the other hand, if I was a soldier having to report for duty at 05:32:03, having my watch set to the right time would be a lot more important. If you’re part of a battle plan and it involves different things happening at different times, coordination is important and a few minutes, or even seconds sometimes, could make a big difference.
So when people call me pedantic and say I should chill a bit more and not obsess too much over details – I say that really depends on the situation. Details can sometimes matter.
Lynne Truss gave a lovely example of the difference a comma can make and used it in the title of her book: Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The story, in case you don’t know it, is about a panda who read a badly punctuated encyclopaedia and, misled by a superfluous comma, got the wrong end of the stick about how he is supposed to behave. The result was a shooting incident at a restaurant.
When I do proofreading, part of my job is to prevent misunderstandings. Bad punctuation can, as Lynne Truss showed, completely change the meaning of a sentence. So yes, these details matter. (Though when I blog I don’t completely stick to the rules, as I feel this medium is a more relaxed one, and as long as my rule-breaking doesn’t make my writing less clear, I feel ok with that. I am totally aware, for example, that my use of ellipses is incorrect, but my readers still get what I mean…)
When you use a map or a GPS for navigating to a place you’re not familiar with, you need the details to be right or you can end up getting totally lost. This is as opposed to, say, sketching a map just as an illustration for a story, or just to give someone an idea of how far your house is from the supermarket.
This sort of thing comes up in Christian circles, when we look at what a Bible verse means – being a Hebrew speaker, I get to sometimes be that annoying person who says: but that word isn’t in the text; or: but that’s not what this word means. And sometimes people think I’m just picking at insignificant detail – and I’m sure there are times when I am… but there are also times when the detail matters. It depends on what sort of conclusions we’re drawing from the text – is it a case of a bad GPS that can lead us to the wrong destination, or is it like my alarm clock being just a few minutes off? The fact that the Hebrew word for “green” does not appear in Psalm 23, for example, is something I see as no more than an interesting detail – I haven’t heard anyone drawing any significant theological conclusions from the word “green” being in the English translation. But I have sometimes heard people draw conclusions from stuff like “notice this verse begins with the word but” and in those situations I will jump up and say: sorry, the original text doesn’t have the word but. If you’re going to draw conclusions from the details, then the details do matter.