The Phenomenology of Error

21 Nov

I received a link from friend and colleague Trent Kays to this article:

Williams, J. M. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32(2), 152-168.

(I UPDATED this post 11/22 with notes from Prof. Sihler below.)

It’s a good read, and points up a key problem: Self-appointed arbiters of writing style, unofficial state grammarians, and teachers of writing often feel compelled to point out errors in the writings of others. Unfortunately, an “error” may not really be one, because most readers would not react to it that way. And the grammar police themselves commit similar or identical errors in their own writing. For example, E.B. White, the much-worshipped sage of style for high school English teachers, is notorious for violating the elements of style in the Elements of Style, though his defenders will argue it ain’t so it until they are blue in the face (or would that be “blue in the faces”?).

Three thoughts:

1. I wish Williams had expressly articulated his claim in terms of rhetoric. What is appropriate style depends on the speaker/writer, the context, and the audience. These are the components of the rhetorical situation.

2. I teach grammar “errors” as rhetorical constructs. I often comment to students: “You may not want to say this as you have, because some readers will interpret it as grammatically incorrect, even though I understood it perfectly.” I intend this to give students choices. When they know that their readers would not welcome the subjunctive, they can “break the rules” and use the indicative; confronted with readers who value the subjunctive as a signal of status, they can demonstrate their knowledge of the rule, speaking the shibboleth their readers desire to hear; when unsure about the audience, they can draft to avoid the construction altogether.

3. I think always of my first linguistics professor, Andrew Sihler at the University of Wisconsin, who said (maybe the first day of class), “If a native speaker says it, and a native speaker understands it, it’s perfectly good English.” (See update below.) Of course, he said so in the context of descriptive linguistics, which theorizes about language as it is, not as it should be. But the prescriptivists often turn out to be just wrong, as Williams makes clear in this article.

Nice read! Thanks Trent!



After ‘quoting’ Prof. Sihler above, I thought maybe I’d see what he’s up to these days and check whether my quote was right. Of course, it’s entirely wrong. In addition to reporting that he’s retired and doing very well, Prof. S (or Uncle Andrew, as he sometimes referred to himself) wrote this:


Now, as to your question, well, I don’t think I would have said that anything immediately intelligible to a native speaker of English qualifies as “perfectly good English”. It might well be clearly English: say, Me Tarzan, you Jane is intelligible, and obviously English in the sense that the elements are all English, unlike say aham Tarzan, tvam Jane. “Headline English” is intelligible—usually—but “perfectly good English” is a bit strong. I once had a whimsical conversation with my late (and bitterly lamented) colleague Valdis Zeps, in which one morning I asked him, Where wife? He responded Wife not Madison. Wife Chicago. Proving that you can communicate just fine without the grammatical machinery of standard English, though I think few would call such utterances “perfectly good English”.

I’m not sure I’ve put your mind at ease on the matter you wrote me about. Linguists are often reproached with the charge that they (we) hold that anything anybody says is “grammatical”. That’s not the claim. The claim is that the status “standard” is established by usage. Not just an utterance here and there, but general usage. Thus, porte-cochere is commonly used in American English to mean a covered drive before a door. The term in French meant, however, a gate (porte) big enough to accommodate the passage of a carriage. As recently as the 1920’s, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary defines the expression thus, and adds that it is  “often incorrectly” used to mean a covered drive. “Often incorrectly” is incoherent: anything used “often” with a consistent function can hardly be “incorrect”. It might be non-standard (ain’t, say), and some very common expressions grate on the ears of some, like consensus of opinion or using podium to mean “lectern”.


It’s just proof that I should not rely on my memory. Of course, my quote was rather obviously wrong in the first place. You’d think I would have concluded that a smart fellow like this would not have so oversimplified the matter. Still, it was nice to have an excuse to get back into touch with him after all these years.



4 Responses to “The Phenomenology of Error”

  1. Trent M Kays November 21, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Brian! I love Williams and this article.


  2. Brian Larson November 22, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Bump for update/correction.

  3. Lee-Ann K. Breuch December 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    I liked the story about correct grammar not being necessary; although I would argue that it depends on the venue. In oral speech, more can be communicated without grammar (for example, gestures, etc.). In written publications, fewer cues are available, and grammar is helpful. However I enter here into Williams’ debate, that of course rules can be broken. I’d argue, however, that such defiance is most effective when the writer understands the rules they are breaking. When writers don’t even understand the rules, their ethos as writers erodes in written discourse.

    • Brian Larson December 27, 2010 at 8:24 am #

      I’ve been thinking about this question of “understanding the rules” where grammar is concerned in the context of philosophy of language. Chomsky early took the view that speakers have “tacit knowledge” of the grammar of their languages. According to some, this ran afoul of analytical philosophy’s account of “knowledge” (on the “Standard Analysis”), which is that one can be said to have knowledge if she has a justified, true, belief. I suspect that folks can vary their language use with no conscious knowledge of how they are altering their registers. I’m thinking, for example, of Labov’s research showing how folks in New York were more or less likely to pronounce word-terminal ‘r’s depending on whether the circumstances were more or less formal. These speakers altered their practices, I’m guessing with little or no conscious effort or knowledge. I suspect that writers can vary registers without conscious knowledge, too.

      But, it’s not clear to me whether a listener (or reader in written discourse) will know whether the speaker (or writer) knows the rules she is breaking or not. Thus, the ethos question you raised is still more complicated, I think, than you suggested. The writer who wants to ‘break the rules’ in written academic discourse needs to know the rules AND needs to let the readers know she knows them. Williams addresses this in his article by ending it with a challenge to the reader: “find the 100 or so grammar errors I’ve intentionally made here.” There was really no practical way, though, for the reader to know whether a given mistake is one Williams intended. It’s a brilliant move, I think 😉

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