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Is there a higher register word that means to criticize something highly specific and inconsequential? Any synonym I can think of seems a little too vernacular, e.g. "to split hairs", "to nitpick". What's a more professional/academic way of saying this? I'd prefer a single word if one exists.

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    Try looking up: angels on the head of a pin. – Lambie May 13 at 20:54
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    BTW Nitpick and Split hairs are not exactly the same. To split hairs is about definitions and wording, while nit picking is about facts and content. "London has over 10 million inhabitants" Split hairs = Actually the City of London is very small. Nitpicking = It's actually over 11 million now. Two different approaches to derail a main point! – EnglishAdam May 14 at 4:44
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    @EnglishAdam My colleague was told he was being pedantic, and he replied: "Pedantry tends to involve a gratuitous display of knowledge. This is nitpicking." :-) – SusanW May 14 at 8:27
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    @EnglishAdam Currently the estimated population of Greater London is below 9 million </nitpicking> – Henry May 14 at 9:55
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    For single-word requests, it's best to include an example sentence with a blank where the word would go. – T.J. Crowder May 14 at 13:06
55

I think
pedantry
would fit, adjective: to be pedantic

overly concerned with minute details or formalisms, especially in teaching.

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    This is the best suggestion for formal academic use. – barbecue May 14 at 16:30
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    OP appears to be asking for a verb... – Dan May 14 at 22:52
  • I was, however as @Strawberry pointed out on my answer "cavil" is just too pretentious/archaic. This one works well enough for me – Zaya May 15 at 3:11
25

I found a possible answer:

Cavil

to raise trivial and frivolous objection

The author caviled about the design of the book's cover.

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    This may be too high a register. – Strawberry May 14 at 15:21
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    @Strawberry Ooh, I must remember that one. What a nice way of saying one has never heard of the word. – Mr Lister May 15 at 10:28
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    @MrLister ;-) indeed – Strawberry May 15 at 10:35
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    I have heard of it (she said in a pedantic voice) and I don't think it fits the use-case. It can be quite legit to cavil about something, nor does it have to be about small details. – Katinka Hesselink May 16 at 11:29
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    well now you're just splitting hairs – code_monk May 16 at 15:23
21

I would probably go with quibble. You could equally use fault-finding.

Carping is another option, but that's nearly as informal as 'nit-picking', so I doubt you'll like it.

  • I found quibble earlier, but I wasn't sure if this was the correct usage. MW defines it as "to evade the point of an argument by caviling about words" which seems rather specific – Zaya May 14 at 1:56
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    @Zaya - That definition in Merriam-Webster is just one of two meanings given, the second being cavil or carp. Collins doesn't say anything about quibble being specific to words. My life experience (30yrs U.S. 20 UK) is that quibble is what you'd use for this meaning and that cavil, though correct, is much less common and many of a typical audience won't know it. – T.J. Crowder May 14 at 13:10
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    @Zaya Originally, 'quibble' specifically meant complaining about tiny errors in latin grammar -- the word comes from 'quibus', which is a particularly tricky word in latin for reasons I won't go into here. But over time the meaning has broadened to mean just in general "complaining about small things that don't actually matter". The OED agrees with that usage, and doesn't draw any specific relation to being about word choice. – Darth Pseudonym May 14 at 13:28
14

As an adjective or noun, you can use

Picayune

An argument, fact, corner case, or other issue raised (often intentionally) that distracts from a larger issue at hand or fails to make any difference.

I don't like my debating class, the judges are too picayune and Dr. Moss always finds a way to disqualify people based on technicalities.

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    Very good ... that'll have them running for their dictionaries! – SusanW May 14 at 8:23
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    Indeed. How to derail a derailer, unless he is also a walking dictionary. – nigel222 May 14 at 12:31
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    This is an amazing word. I love it to death. The etymology says its from the French word for penny, the most useless coin of all. Literally "arguing about pennies" – Zaya May 15 at 3:15
  • @SusanW - that'll have them reaching for their dictionaries. (Most everyone has a dictionary in their pocket nowadays.) – J.R. May 16 at 13:41
11

Pettifogging

can mean to place undue attention on small details. It's a bit more formal than some of the other suggestions, but is also somewhat archaic.

The committee spent half the day pettifogging over some arcane rule and never got around to my proposal.

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    +1 I'm going to start using this excellent word in everyday conversation... – Greenonline May 14 at 17:36
3

In the context of engineering, programming, or other technical disciplines, there is also

Bikeshedding

Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively.

We were supposed to give our proposal to the client today but Jamie insisted on bikeshedding over the exact color of the cover page so we had to deliver the report later.

This term is more informal, and it's jargon specific to a particular field so it might not be what you are looking for, but others who come across this question may find it useful.

Edit: I just realized @MikeTheLiar already proposed this word in a comment, but the comment was hidden as it had a low score.

3

In a more pedantic way : tetrapiloctomie

Created by Umberto Eco from the Latin & Greek words Tetra (~4), Pilus (~hair) and ectomie (~cutting)

https://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/t%C3%A9trapilectomie

Better tasted in French so it's quintessential pedantic ;)

1

Nitpicking
- Looking for small or unimportant errors or faults, especially in order to criticize unnecessarily. (Urban Dictionary)

‘It may therefore seem like philosophical nit-picking if I criticise some of his arguments for getting to those conclusions.’

‘A first-year student at Williams may well become frustrated with such fastidious nit-picking.’ (Oxford Dictionaries)

  • Nitpick was actually discarded by the OP but I think it's formal enough. – Mari-Lou A May 14 at 20:07
  • Is Urban Dictionary a legit source on this SE? – YetAnotherRandomUser May 15 at 18:12
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    @YetAnotherRandomUser - It depends on the question. If someone is looking for newfangled slang, it can be an excellent resource; however, when the OP is looking for something in a "professional/academic" register, it's probably a poor choice, especially with so many other dictionaries available. – J.R. May 16 at 13:44

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