The Phenomenology of Error
College composition and communication
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... unication. I am often puzzled by what we call errors of grammar and usage, errors such as different than, between you and I, a which for a that, and so on. I am puzzled by what motive could underlie the unusual ferocity which an irregardless or a hopefully or a singular media can elicit. In his second edition of On Writing Well (New York, 1980), for example, William Zinsser, an otherwise amiable man I'm sure, uses, and quotes not disapprovingly, words like detestable vulgarity (p. 43), garbage (p. 44), atrocity (p. 46), horrible (p. 48); oaf (p. 42), idiot (p. 43), and simple illiteracy (p. 46), to comment on usages like OK, hopefully, the affix -wise, and myself in He invited Mary and myself to dinner. The last thing I want to seem is sanctimonious. But as I am sure Zinsser would agree, what happens in Cambodia and Afghanistan could more reasonably be called horrible atrocities. The likes of Idi Amin qualify as legitimate oafs. Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions. And while simply illiteracy is the condition of billions, it does not characterize those who use disinterested in its original sense.1 I am puzzled why some errors should excite this seeming fury while others, not obviously different in kind, seem to excite only moderate disapproval. And I am puzzled why some of us can regard any particular item as a more or less serious error, while others, equally perceptive, and acknowledging that the same item may in some sense be an "error," seem to invest in their observation no emotion at all. At first glance, we ought to be able to explain some of these anomolies by subsuming errors of grammar and usage in a more general account of defective social behavior, the sort of account constructed so brilliantly by Erving Goffman.2 But errors of social behavior differ from errors of "good usage": Social errors that excite feelings commensurate with judgments like "horrible," "atrocious," "oaf(ish)," and "detestable" are usually errors that grossly violate our personal space: We break wind at a dinner party and then vomit Joseph M. Williams is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace. He is now pursuing the idea of form in non-fictional prose. This paper is based on a paper he presented at CCCC in 1980.