The phenomenology of error

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Among the 39 comments on David Beaver's post "Orwell's Liar",  comments that were often impassioned and mostly long, the best one was calm and short:

Joseph Williams makes related points in his influential article, "The Phenomenology of Error," published in College Composition and Communication in 1981. That essay has an unforgettable surprise ending. You can read it online here.

This was contributed by Beth, and the link to Williams' article is valuable enough to be displayed more prominently.

Williams' article is not strictly relevant to David's main point, which was that the self-reference in the last of Orwell's list of rules for writing may generate a Cretan-liar-style logical paradox.   But Williams' observations are very much relevant to the striking hypocrisy of the genre of moralistic usage advice that Orwell's essay represents, and thus his essay is also relevant to most of the other comments on David's post.

For example, Williams cites a case where Jacques Barzun explains the (invented) rule proscribing which in "defining [relative] clauses", and then violates it himself less than a page later with the sentence "Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects for style virtually by reflex action."

[I]t is not the error as such that I am concerned with here, but rather the fact that after Barzun stated the rule, and almost immediately violated it, no one noticed — not Barzun himself who must certainly have read the manuscript several times, not a colleague to whom he probably gave the manuscript before he sent it to the publisher, not the copy editor who worked over the manuscript, not the proof reader who read the galleys, not Barzun who probably read the galleys after them, apparently not even any-one in the reading public, since that which hasn't been corrected in any of the subsequent printings. To characterize this failure to respond as mere carelessness seems to miss something important.

Williams similarly observes that

Orwell, in the very act of criticizing the passive, not only casts his proscription against it in the passive, but almost all the sentences around it, as well:

I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged . . . Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry . . . the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds . . . The range of verbs if further cut down . . . and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not an formation. Simple conjunctions are replaced by . . . the ends of sentences are saved by . . .

Again, I am not concerned with the fact that Orwell wrote in the passive or used nominalizations where he could have used verbs.  Rather, I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.

Why do  Strunk, Barzun, Orwell and the rest so often behave like the self-parodying caricatures in a comedy of manners? Why do generations of readers strive mindlessly to emulate them?  Williams has a theory about this. He also has a proposal about what ought to be done instead.

I don't believe that we've linked to his essay before, so this post repairs the omission. And you might not agree with his theories, but you ought to read them.


  1. language hat said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    An excellent essay. Thanks for posting it more prominently.

  2. Jan Freeman said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Very interesting essay, but I have one cavil: I think Williams misrepresents Fowler's views on subjunctive "were." He quotes Fowler saying

    Were (sing.) is, then, a recognizable subjunctive, & applicable not to past facts, but to present or future non-facts. (p. 576)

    And then (allegedly) contradicting himself by using "was" for "were":

    Another suffix that is not a living one, but is sometimes treated as if it was, is -al . . . (p. 242)

    But Fowler did not prescribe "were" as the One Right Way for conditional clauses; he thought it was an obsolescent, though still correct, form. In the same entry on subjunctives, he endorses both variants of the verb: "If it were (or nowadays alternatively was) so how angry we should be." Fowler was not being inconsistent when he said "treated as if it was," but using the verb he considered more modern and vigorous.

    Spoiler alert:

    Could this misreading possibly be one of the "errors" Williams inserted into the text on purpose? That would be truly diabolical.

  3. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    A PDF copy of the article as published can be found here

  4. Mark F. said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    I am disappointed that the list of errors he intentionally inserted is missing. For my part, I noticed one, plus a cluster that I don't count because he seemed to be contrasting a phrase with lots of obvious errors with another phrase lacking them, without in this case explicitly labeling the sentence as an example.

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    I only remember encountering one "error" that jumped out at me upon first reading, and now I can't even remember what it was.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    I noticed that something was afoot when I found a restrictive which in the second sentence of the essay. But it isn't clear to me if Williams even considers that to be an "error."

  7. Tom Recht said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I had the same thought as Jan Freeman about Fowler and the subjunctive. I think Barzun's supposed self-contradiction is also defensible: I don't see the relative clause as necessarily restrictive in the sentence quoted ("Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects for style virtually by reflex action"). I'd say the defining part of the qualification is the adjective "typical", while everything else is a non-restrictive elaboration. Maybe these are quibbles, but Williams's examples struck me as not very well chosen.

  8. JimG said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    @ Neal Goldfarb
    You cited a .pdf version that's in JSTOR, to which some readers have no access.

  9. Ellen said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    Being that the URL Neal Goldfarb linked to doesn't match the one given in the article, and being as I was able to link to it just fine, I think he linked to an article that had been copied out of JSTOR, not to JSTOR.

  10. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    JimG: The PDF that I linked to is publicly accessible; no need for a JSTOR subscription. Someone downloaded the paper from JSTOR and then posted it.

  11. language hat said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    Did you "I only noticed one error" folks miss the following sentence?

    The most obviousest set of rules be those whose violation we instantly notes, but whose observation we entirely ignore.

    If so, it reminds me of the recent experiment in which viewers missed seeing a man in a gorilla suit walk across a basketball court.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    language hat: …recent experiment in which viewers missed seeing a man in a gorilla suit walk across a basketball court.

    The experiment was published in 1999 — I guess for a historical linguist, that's "recent", though in blog years, it's paleolithic :-). The experiment is described here, with a link to the video and to the original publication.

    The effect documented in Simons and Chabris's experiments reinforces one of Williams' points, which is about the role of selective attention.

  13. mollymooly said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Hat's "most obviousest" primed my antennae, so although I spotted a few more before the full ruse was revealed, I have to recuse myself from filling in the survey. Is there an actual summary available of responses submitted?

    Only one error really stood out for me ("need I really have to", which on reflection isn't all that glaring). Having said that, switching from "one" to "he"/"him"/"his"/"himself" is obsolete in British English, which might explain why the only person using the construction these days is Prince Charles, or a caricature thereof. I dare say with gender-neutral language it's obsolete in America too.

  14. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    Why do Strunk, Barzun, Orwell and the rest so often behave like the self-parodying caricatures in a comedy of manners? Why do generations of readers strive mindlessly to emulate them? Williams has a theory about this.

    Really? I didn't notice any theory that would explain why Orwell etc fail to understand what they actually do when they write. I did read an interesting and useful description of what actually happens when educated readers read for content as opposed to what they do when they read with their attention on grammar and usage. But I saw nothing to explain why accomplished stylists like White and Orwell have failed to understand their own behavior and therefore mis-described it so badly in their efforts to teach it.

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