As you wander through word country, as you pick and serve your delicacies of syntax and lexis, keep an eye open for the snares. There is a subset of the word country population who are there not to nurture and relish but to hunt, trap, capture. They are the catchers, the captors, the cacciatori. They are the captious.
Captious, because they set snares and seize on any small fault they can find. For them, the language is already too capacious and needs to be more rapacious. They have self-printed hunting licences declaring open season at all times. They forge on them the signatures of authorities, but in truth there is no central office, for the language is a common creation, cultivated by all. The jackbooted brigades that these trappers would like to call forth are not to be found; there is only this infestation of the captious, individuals with apparent common cause but in actual disagreement on many points, and their thirst to cavil outweighs their understanding of the subject. True understanding can be gained only by tending and nurturing, not by darting raids on the eggs and seedlings.
There is no fault too small for the captious. Nor need the fault be real: these cacciatore chickens play by invented rules, snaring and bagging on the pretext of imaginary laws that were confected only to give a smirking justification for hanging the language to drain its blood. Hanging from what? Flimsy scaffolds that they pretend are living syntax trees.
You can see them in the wild, scratching out captions and imposing Sharpies on apostrophes. Online you will find even more: the screen captious are the horseflies of cyberspace, buzzing and stinging between the tweets. Today has likely been an extra busy day, as it has been Grammar Day. Imagine: a groaning buffet table of the best and most beautiful of language, set out for all to take, but beset at the edges by the captious, who fling food to the floor, measure distances between dishes, set mousetraps beneath the fruits and cheeses, brandish bodkins at would-be diners. The gastronomy becomes an occasion of paranoia and competition. The gardeners and chefs of words must set out their defences and swat away the parasites.
But while we do not welcome the captious, beleaguerers of words and of word-lovers, we do welcome captious. It is a good word from a decent family with many close resemblances. From the progenitor capere ‘take, hold’ come capture, catch, caption, cacciatore (Italian for ‘hunter’), captor, and captious, among others, as well as cousins such as capable. This crisp word, captious, snaps like a trap or the clap and echo of a gunshot. It is well used to say ‘inclined to find fault on whatever pretext, to entrap’.
When you encounter the captious, as you inevitably will, counsel them: Do not be so captious. And when they start ringing ropes around you on the basis that there must be standards, and unitary enforced standards at that, ask them to start by setting and exemplifying standards for good manners, respectfulness, maturity, and thoughtfulness.