What do trifling, petty and picayune mean when describing a person? According to dictionaries I looked at, they all mean worthless and trivial, but then following sentence does not make sense to me. I also found picayune has a meaning of "carping or prejudiced", which I still can't fit it into the sentence.

Can someone explain what do they mean exactly in this sentence? As far as I understand the logic of the sentence, the words picayune in the sentence should have a meaning similar to "contrary to the rules" but I just can't find any definition similar to that.

The sentence:

English teachers are notorious for being picayune(trifling, petty); however, the English language is so nuanced and sophisticated that often such teachers are not being contrary but are only adhering to the rules.

  • 2
    They all have the connotation of small and unimportant. Small-minded is what's intended here. – deadrat Oct 10 '16 at 19:55
  • Oh thanks, small-minded actually fits perfectly into the sentence! I don't know if native English speakers always treat "unimportant" and "small-minded" as the same thing but I really think this should be put into dictionaries as a non-native speaker.. – cr001 Oct 10 '16 at 19:57
  • "Pettifogger": someone who quibbles over trivia, and raises petty, annoying objections. (Wiktionary). – Peter Point Oct 10 '16 at 20:51
  • I suspect that picayune was chosen partly because it's a ten-dollar word that sounds similar to picky, and then the definition was sort of stretched-to-fit. Personally, I would not say that English teachers are notorious for being picayune, but I might say they have a certain reputation for pickiness. – 1006a Oct 10 '16 at 21:34
  • One implication is that they exude too much angst over trivial issues. – Hot Licks Oct 10 '16 at 21:40

In the sentence used, all of these derogatory adjectives simply mean that one might think an English teacher is worrying too much over the details; putting so much importance on the small things that it seems like they are not being helpful so much as deliberately contrary.


English teachers are notorious for being picayune(trifling, petty)

I will give you my own personal understanding of these words.

Picayune means nitpicky. Trifling means wasting time with unimportant matters (a bit connected with silly). Petty means the person begrudges you every little detail of what you did wrong.

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