All Hail the Hairsplitters

Nitpickers get a bad rap. No one likes to be corrected, but it is particularly irritating to have minor mistakes pointed out. However, what is insignificant to one person may be a major objection to another. For example, a misplaced apostrophe might give one person uncontrollable shudders, but most people wouldn’t notice or care. They would consider it bad manners to point out the mistake. Instead of being reviled, nitpickers should be celebrated and cherished. Just think about this: The lack of one nitpicker was responsible for the deaths of seven CIA agents and contractors in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve, for the fact that Umar Abdulmutallab was allowed on a plane on Christmas day, and for each of the space shuttle explosions.

It is difficult to know exactly what happened at CIA Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province on December 31, 2009. Aside from the confusion caused by a suicide bombing, CIA operations are closely guarded secrets, by definition. Despite the shrouds of secrecy, it is a safe assumption that either there was one less anal-retentive nitpicker at the base than they needed, or the colleagues of a stickler for protocol were not paying close enough attention to the person’s warnings.

One of the scarier aspects of the story of the Christmas Day bomber is that he was on several watchlists, but with different spellings of his name. Can’t you imagine an employee of Department of Homeland Security or the CIA wondering how “Abdulmutallab” is spelled and deciding that close is good enough?

The Challenger exploded over the Atlantic because a rubber seal failed due to cold weather and the Discovery blew up over Texas because of a broken heat-shield tile. Each of those failures resulted from insufficient attention to detail. One more perfectionist could have saved each of those crews.

The problem is that “good enough” is usually good enough, and perfectionism is generally not cost-effective–even in critical activities. We tend to think in terms of acceptable margin of error, but to keep shuttles in the air and terrorists off airplanes no error is acceptable. Give our carpers, cavilers, censors, censurers, criticizers, faultfinders, hairsplitters, perfectionists, pussyfoots, quibblers, scolds, smellfunguses, and sticklers the utmost respect. When someone complains about misplaced punctuation or the fact that 2010 is the last year of the first decade of the century and not first year of the second decade, don’t brush it off. Listen and learn. It is the nitpickers among us who will keep us safe.


John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2010 John B. Payne, Attorney

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