Even more Phenomenology of Error

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In the comments to my post Orwell's Liar, Beth posted a link to Joseph William's article The Phenomonology of Error, and Mark reposted the link in a follow-up post here.

Well, I just finished reading the Williams article, and what I want to know is how the fuck an article riddled with errors could ever be published in a respectable journal…

Calm down, I'm kidding! (Just trying to live up to the new foaming-at-the-mouth image that my tiny but loyal commenting public apparently expects of me.) But there's a sense in which I'm not kidding at all. If you have time to spare, you can see what I mean (and what Beth meant) by following right now this link to Joseph Williams' excellent article, reading it, and doing what Williams suggests.

And here I should perhaps say that sadly, Joseph Williams died last year. He was the author of the only style book that I recall ever being praised on Language Log – his Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. I wish I'd known him.

Anyhow, as I say, please read Williams excellent article, and then come back here… I want ask a big favor of you. But it's essential that you read the article all the way to the end.

OK, have you read it? Then you'll have seen that Williams is playing a little game. He wants you to spot certain things. So here's the favor I want to beg of you. Could you please submit in comments to this post your responses to the request Williams' made at the end of his article, honestly stating which answers you found first time around, and which you found by later scrutiny?

Incidentally, I also see that the person Williams appointed as arbiter of the game, Professor Maxine Hairston, died in 2005. She was a professor at my institution (UT Austin), although she passed away before I arrived. I'll see if I can ferret out any information about what happened to the specially marked manuscript that Williams apparently gave her, or the results of readers mailing her their answers to Williams request. If any of you readers have any information, please pass it on in the comments or by email (dib AT-SIGN mail.utexas.edu).


  1. Amy Reynaldo said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    I spotted the repeated "mispelled" misspelling and some split infinitives near the split-infinitives discussion when my attention to them was heightened. Other "errors" hadn't jumped out at me in that initial reading, but there are many so-called rules that I hold little stock in so their violation would not irk me. I didn't go back to look for the other 98 errors I missed.

    Context matters. When copyediting for a client who bans most "due to" uses and "since" to mean "because," my eyes jump to those. When reading anything else (or, heck, writing something myself), my editorial eye passes over those because really, I think they're just fine.

  2. Andrew said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    I read the first two sentences or so, decided that the writing was quite odd, thought about the title, and said "oh, I get it!" and after that I was primed. I figure that makes it useless to distinguish between errors I found the "first time" and ones I had to "go back for". Needless to say, I found quite a few.

    The most violent transgressions, were, of course, in the sentence beginning "The most obviousest set of rules be…" :)

  3. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

    "most obviousest" is the one I remember sticking out. I think there were some other things I tripped over, which I thought were misprints or something. I don't remember them offhand, though, so to find them I'd have to go back a second time.

  4. Henitsirk said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    There was a glaring that/which problem in the second sentence (I'm sensitive to that one!) and "simply illiteracy" at the end of para. 2 jumped out at me. After that I kind of tuned out and just enjoyed the essay as a whole.

    But many of the (I assume) errors seem to be stylistic choices, rather than true errors — what he might have labeled -V -F ? Since/because and split infinitives seem also to be fairly flexible in modern usage, while dangling participles and ending sentences with prepositions seem to still be frowned upon.

    Good lord, I just wrote that last sentence without any sense of irony.

    I once edited several manuscripts purely to "modernize" and "Americanize" the language — lectures originally given in German that had been very literally translated into English in the 1940's. That was -V -F in spades.

  5. Greg said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

    The only one I picked up on my first read-through was "most obviousest". Admittedly, I was breezing through the article in order to finish it before heading out to lunch, but I doubt I would have picked up much else even if I had been reading more closely.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I also noticed the use of two colons in "The point is this: We can discuss error in two ways: we can discuss it…", but I couldn't remember if I had actually heard a prescription against that or if the memory was something I had conjured out of nowhere. I suspect that more than one "rule of grammar" has begun its life in such a fashion.

    I don't have a lot of time to do a second read-through, but here's what I got in a couple of minutes:

    – "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions." – fragment
    – "But errors of social behavior differ from errors of 'good usage.'" – starting a sentence with 'but'
    – "Or the error metaphorically violates psychic space…" – starting with 'or'
    – "But no matter how "atrocious" or "horrible" or "illiterate" we think…" – starting with 'but'

    There were occasional sentences where the phrasing seemed a bit… well, like the sort of thing a usage maven would take offense to. But all I could say about them was something like "awkward construction"—not a specific rule violation—so I didn't put them on the list.

  6. Mark F. said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

    First reading:

    1. The most obviousest set of rules be those whose violation we instantly notes, but whose observation we entirely ignore. [I don't think these count, because he's just illustrating the kind of rules he's talking about here. But I mention them anyway.]

    2. "But need I really have to assert that…"

    Second reading:

    1. Spill coffee in their lap
    2. ignorance or incompetence or accident
    3. to fully account [the only split infinitive I could find]
    4. Unusual ferocity which
    5. as I will point out later [? Does he really expect people to regard that as an error?]

    …I'm running out of patience. I missed all the spelling errors.

  7. Ethan said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    As Mark F., I spotted #1 right away, and #2 caught my eye too — but not because "Need I really have to assert", but instead because of "just because many rules of grammar lack practical force, it is hardly the case that none of them have substance?". The entire sentence was very awkward and I had to reread it a few times before I moved on, but I chalked it up to "stylistic difference", not noticing the more serious redundancy of "Need I have to".



  8. Angus Lander said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:19 am

    There's a "condeming" in there somewhere.

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:45 am

    The most obviousest one jumped out at me, and "simply illiteracy" (because I often produce actually confusing text by swapping "me" and "my" in both directions, so I'm sensitive to the case of getting an unintended actual word by switching an 'e' with a 'y'). But what actually gave me pause was punctuation; the missing period between a sentence-final "to" and a capitalized "When" (at which point, I noticed the stranded preposition), and an en-dash after "Value" which didn't belong there. I also found it distracting whenever words italicized for emphasis where adjacent to words italicized as being mentioned rather than used. I'm not sure if this counts as an error or just an infelicity of his notation.

    On skimming backwards after reading it, I noticed note l2, which I have a hard time believing was accurately reproduced from the original without a full list of errors.

  10. Harry said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:10 am

    I actually suspected that the 'surprise' mentioned when the piece was originally linked to would turn out to be what it it was, although I didn't make any effort to look for errors because of it. The only thing I remember noticing on first read was, like everyone else, 'the most obviousest set of rules be those whose violation we instantly notes', but I don't know if that even counts as an error anyway, since it reads as a jokey illustration of the point.

    But then I am deeply unbothered by most of the things which he is counting as potential 'errors' anyway: I can't even remember what the that/which distinction is supposed to be, for example, and I certainly don't make any attempt to observe it.

    It would be interesting to have a list of the errors so that I could see how many of them are things which I would regard as real errors but didn't jump out when reading for content, and how many of them are things which I wouldn't class as errors anyway.

  11. Edward Vitasek said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:48 am

    I suspected the little game as soon as I found out what the article was about. The "surprising ending" in Beth's comment tipped me off. I found about ten errors on first reading, but most of them I can't remember. Two I recognised in the list:

    1. "need I really have to"

    2. "simply illiteracy" (I remember wondering what sort of error this is: misplaced adverb or adverb-adjective confusion)

    I'm tickled to find I missed "most obviousest".

    I have not yet been over the text a second time.

  12. Edward Vitasek said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:50 am


    3. A host of "different thans".

  13. Edward Vitasek said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 5:24 am

    Sorry to post three times in a row. As soon as I submitted "a host of 'different thans'" I became suspicious. I was right. Searching for "different" in the text gives me three instances of "different than"; only one is usage (another mentions it as a mistake, and yet another is a quote).

    I wonder whether this is an error of memory or one of perception. Interesting.

  14. Rubrick said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 5:47 am

    I noticed some of the same items mentioned above, and like many of the above commenters I was tipped off early by as to what was going on.

    One category of errors which jumped out at me was misitalicizations, where a word or two after an italicized passage was incorrectly italicized as well: "…among those for whom the me is a bête noir…", "The point is the existence of a category of 'rules'…." There were several of these. This kind of error seems so far removed from the sort which the article was examining (what grammar book includes imprecations against italicizing the wrong word?) that I wondered if it was in fact introduced in the web transcription (which possibility the web editor warned about).

  15. Emily Morgan said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    Another potentially interesting distinction is between what one notices while reading, and what one remembers after reading. I read the article yesterday, and as of today all I can remember noticing on my first read-through was that the style in general felt overly formal or old-fashioned, and that there was one awkward double negation (something like "not unnecessary", but I don't remember the exact words). Reading previous comments, I also recall noticing "most obviousest" and the misitalicization.

  16. Steve in Spain said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 6:53 am

    The only one that leapt out at me (besides "most obviousest" which I took as intentional parody) was this sentence.

    "The trouble with this kind of research, though, with asking people whether they think finalize is or is not good usage, is that they are likely to answer."

    I was skimming along at a good clip and I had to re-read this sentence two or three times to figure out who exactly "they" referred to. And I still don't think I quite understand the sentence – it seems as though it got clipped short.

    Rubrick, if you read the pdf (http://www.english.uiuc.edu/-people-/faculty/schaffner/Williams%20Error.pdf), you'll find confirmation that the misitalicizations are simply errors in the web transcription, not in the original article.

  17. Richard Sabey said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    Honestly, the only errors I found the first time around were the aforementioned cluster in the sentence beginning "The most obviousest", and "anomalies" misspelt "anomolies" on p.152 l.-7.

  18. Karen said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 8:17 am

    To be honest, the only one I noticed was "need I really have to". I did notice what I thought was a habit of using commas where I'd use dashes (as in "The trouble with this kind of research, though, with asking people whether they think finalize is or is not good usage, is that they are likely to answer.", where I'd put a dash after "though" and "usage"), but I don't count that as an error.

    I also don't count as errors things other people have listed as "errors they found" – such as starting sentences with conjunctions or splitting infinitives.

    I do count as an error "most obviousest" and find it fascinating that I read right over it.

  19. Mark F. said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    I should clarify — I was looking for things that he thought others thought were errors, not things that I thought were errors.

  20. Richard Sabey said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    Here's a list of things which I spotted on rereading, and which I suppose some people might say were errors:

    p.152 para 3: "I am puzzled why": is this supposed to be an error for "I am puzzled by why"?
    p.152 para 3 and elsewhere: And at start of sentence
    p.152 para 2 l.1 and elsewhere: But at start of sentence
    p.152 para 2 l.1-2: a comma after the subsidiary as-clause with no matching comma before it
    p.153 l.2: Or at start of sentence
    p.153 l.3 and elsewhere: Word after a colon capitalised
    p.153 l.-7: split infinitive
    p.153 l.-6: "between" N, N and N; some say "between" is good only with a 2-fold object.
    p.154 l.6 and elsewhere The dictionary's full title is "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language", so the word The is part of the title, and thus should be capitalised and italicised.
    p.154 l.21 and 26-27: a comma after a subsidiary clause with no matching comma before it
    p.154 para 1 l.-2: from N to N to N.
    p.155 l.27: "…too soft on": a clause ending with a preposition
    p.155 l.31: condeming
    p.155 l.33: "like" for "as if"
    p.156 l.-4: "What I'm interested in here is…why anyone would surely have noticed…"; I think he means something more like "why /everyone/ would surely have noticed…".
    p.162 l.-2: a comma after the subsidiary clause "in the right context" with no matching comma before it
    p.163 l.25: bête noire misspelt
    p.163 l.32: a comma after the subsidiary phrase "on…usage" with no matching comma before it. I think that, unlike the numerous similar cases, omitting the comma before "on" made a significant difference: this sentence as written led me to think that "on…usage" was a phrase parallel to "wordier".
    p.163 l.33: "less" for "fewer"
    p.164 l.12: a comma after the subsidiary phrase "just…usage" with no matching comma before it.

    BTW I understood "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions" as being "We have more than enough idiots in our state institutions", with "Idiots" fronted to make the link with the earlier mention of idiots clearer.

  21. Catanea said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    Like lots of people, I was suspicious. I thought the "Most obviousest" was intentional. I was brought up short by "less words" (that's one I recall specifically); but later (and possibly earlier) I found I had to reread sentences to try to get what they meant… I never learnt the which/that rule, but maybe some constructions intentionally introduced to challenge it gave me trouble without my knowing why.
    One only knows the "rules" one knows. A lot of other rules (the ones one wasn't TAUGHT, but simply absorbed) are more difficult to spell out and to defend or to delineate a violation of. And of course, over the vast modern spectrum of journalistic and literary styles there can be such a range of imagined audiences…
    Will I reread it? It was fun; but L O N G.
    Yes. He must've been a cool guy.

  22. Gemma said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    I wrote my list before reading the other comments:

    -Missing commas in a list [ranging from which referring to a whole clause to split infinitives to enthuse as a verb]

    -One missing fullstop at the end of a sentence, which I can't find glancing back through

    -Stray hyphen [Value- becomes]

    -Unnecessary "est" [most obviousest]. "Be" for "is" [set of rules be those]. Mismatched verb/subject [we instantly notes].

    -Redundant "have to" [need I really have to assert]

    -Capital letter after a colon (to my British eyes this is an error, but I believe it's standard American usage) [space: We]

    -Italics carried on to following word [the fact that impact has been used as a verb]. — not in the original text?

    On skimming back through I spotted one or two more clunkers which I am surprised I didn't notice on the first reading (along the lines of "simply illiteracy"). Like some of the other commenters I found some sentences hard going, which probably indicates they contained a deliberate error, but I didn't spot anything specifically wrong with them.

  23. NW said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    'Most obviousest' gave the game away if (I can't remember) I wasn't already aware what he was doing. But the thing is, 'most obviousest' actually is ungrammatical, whereas none of the prescriptivist bugbears are. So that was the only error I noticed.

    I noticed, of course, several of the deliberate non-errors like count 'less' and so-called split infinitive, but I didn't think I was supposed to be picking those up, if I understood his procedure.

    Because it was on the Web I ignored minor proof-reading errors that I would fix if it was my own task. The wrong italicization looked like a rendering artefact; the capital after a colon I knew to be an occasional AmE usage; and there were some excess commas, I think, but I wasn't sure if those were part of his game.

  24. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    I found the essay induced in me a growing sense of unease as I went further into it, which I realised, once it was confirmed what was going on, was because of the mismatch between Williams's normal excellent prose style and the clunkers and errors he inserted after he had finished the essay first time.

    It was like hearing Andre Previn play a piano piece perfectly except for sudden wrong notes and brief bars in the wrong time signature. Writing with that many errors and infelicities in is usually bad in many other ways as well: poor construction, poor choice of words, poor arguments and so on. However, Williams was clearly an extremely good writer indeed, which is why it was particularly disturbing to suddenly stub one's toes on sentences without verbs, or poorly constructed, such as the one in the opening: "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions." Williams's essay reminds me of the apocryphal story about a film maker who wanted someone to play the harmonica badly on his soundtrack, and had to hire Larry Adler, because only someone who played really well could produce an authentic-sounding bad performance. Only someone who wrote well could have sustained readers' interest through such a lengthy piece with so many bum notes.

    It's certainly more proof of our capacity to ignore error if we believe we understand what is meant, like the sentence in The Guardian on Saturday, in a passage talking about how fashion still uses really skinny models, which read: "A flick through the advertisements in the latest UK issue of Vogue brings no sign of anyone who would have to even breathe in to fit into a size eight dress …"

    They mean breathe out. If you breathe in, you get bigger.

  25. JimG said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    Marvelous! After skimming Prof. Williams' paper, I want to express my admiration for a mind that could insert so many examples of variant style, grammar and word choice while continuing to communicate. I can only wonder if he could have read it aloud with tongue so firmly in cheek. Somebody tell me whether or not he was serious about the argument that the paper made.

  26. Ellen said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    I find it curious that some folks had problems with, "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions.". I don't read it as a sentence fragment, nor as poorly constructed. Maybe it depends on familiarity with that particular rhetorical device.

    As for error catching, I think I may have thought something looked wrong with "mispell", but I didn't dwell on it to figuer out what. And that's it. I even missed "most obviousest".

  27. Dave Wilton said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    Only one thing jumped out at me when I first read the article: a semicolon outside quotation marks. I paused for a moment, wondering if Williams were British, then chalked it up as a minor typo and moved on.

    What strikes me is the difference wearing my copyeditor's hat makes. Once I start looking for them, the "errors" are obvious. But in my initial, casual reading, the one "error" that clicked was one that could identify the writer's nationality. I was probably unconsciously looking for this so I could place his arguments in the proper stylistic context.

  28. Karen said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    Like Ellen, I find it interesting that so many people are citing "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions." as an error. It seems a perfectly normal and acceptable bit of fronting to me.

  29. language hat said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    Only one thing jumped out at me when I first read the article: a semicolon outside quotation marks. I paused for a moment, wondering if Williams were British, then chalked it up as a minor typo and moved on.

    Semicolons are supposed to go outside quotes, even in America. You can check any style manual; here's the first one I googled up:

    6. Place the semicolon outside quotation marks or parentheses.

        Joe said, “Soup is on”; however, no one was hungry.

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    I wonder if an error in French (bête noir for bête noire) is supposed to count, or the fact that the phrase is not italicized.
    My general feeling is that the "errors" that Williams inserted are ones that some readers might regard as such, but not necessarily others or, a fortiori, Williams himself. Witness his anecdote about circulating his manuscript among a group of reviewers: "…almost every reader took exception to one item of usage that they thought I had been too soft on, that I should have unequivocally condemned as a violation of good usage. Unfortunately, each of them mentioned a different item."

  31. Chad Nilep said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    I had a definite memory of subject-verb disagreement. I recalled that the subject pronoun we occurred with a 3pSg verb, and that a single adverb occurred between subject and verb, but I couldn't recall what the verb was, or where it occurred.

    On re-reading, I was surprised to see that it is in the sentence beginning, "The most obviousest set," mentioned several times above. It's funny that I noticed both errors (superlative morphology and subject-verb agreement) on first reading, but one day later I did not remember that they were in the same sentence.

    I don't remember any other specific errors I noted on first reading, but I do have a vague recollection of thinking that various errors must have been introduced in the process of publishing the paper to the web. This probably means that I was noticing some spelling or punctuation errors, but not attending to or remembering specifically what they were.

    As Emily Morgan suggests, the experience of remembering may be as interesting as the experience of responding. Perhaps it is advisable to add a third dimension to Williams's feature matrix?

  32. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    The only errors I stumbled over when reading the essay, were 'whose' in 'a category of "rules" to whose violation we respond', and the several instances of incorrect italics.

    Two caveats: I'm not a native speaker of English, which also means that I have not been taught most of the rules he's talking about (because we were too busy learning "passable" English to learn to speak it "perfectly"), and I read them on screen, which means I'm likely to read faster and more superficially. The latter point does mean that depend on style issues like italics a lot, so it's no wonder that I detected those.

  33. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Like Chad, I assumed as I was reading that transcription errors crept in when the article was posted to the web. I did notice that

    "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions"

    should be

    "Of idiots we have more than enough in our state institutions."

    It jumped out because both the idea expressed and the noun-first contruction were so pompous that the error was mildly amusing.

    But I have to say that the game ruins the essay. Williams begins by professing to wonder why people get so upset over minor errors. He then shows that much of what we consider to be error when we're thinking about grammar does not register as actual error when we are reading for meaning. He further shows that some usages that we consider to be correct actually function as more as error in the way that distract from the effort of reading for meaning. (Most of us, I think, have an intuitive understanding of this phenomenon when we try to avoid "pretentious" usage.)

    All very interesting. But then he gives up on trying to answer his own question. Instead of exploring why people get so upset about error, he sets about demonstrating that we should not get so upset. He stops explaining and starts proscribing.

    The question becomes most interesting to me when he tries to draw the line between real and imagined error. He does so by introducing an example of dialectal English – "It don't matter" – as a clear example of error that "we" would all recognize. So now we have to define who "we" are and how "we" relate to "standard" English. And what about our students (not mine, as I don't teach, but those of Williams and his intended readers?) What is their relationship to standard English? All kinds of questions of class and status anxiety start to bubble up, only to to be smoothed over by the game.

  34. nathan said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    The only error I can honestly remember noticing other than the obviousest one, was a "whoever" when "whomever" would be technically correct. What's funny about this "error" is that no one else has made a comment on it (that I noticed), and it is also a distinction that has caused much soul-searching for me of late. For some reason, I always notice when people "misuse" "who" for "whom," but as an advertising copywriter, I can't tell you how many times i've written "whom" (correctly) but then changed it on further reflection because it sounds stilted and un-conversational (two unforgivable sins in ad copy). So, as of now, I pretty much give people unlimited latitude in who/whom use. But alas, I can't help noticing it.

  35. Karen said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    This kind of discussion eventually becomes very funny to me. Bloix says

    "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions"

    should be

    "Of idiots we have more than enough in our state institutions."

    It jumped out because both the idea expressed and the noun-first contruction were so pompous that the error was mildly amusing.

    But for me, it's his preferred construction that sounds pompous and amusing, while the original sounds natural if emphatic.

    The key notion is "…almost every reader took exception to one item of usage that they thought I had been too soft on, that I should have unequivocally condemned as a violation of good usage. Unfortunately, each of them mentioned a different item." These things aren't errors – they're shibboleths. And each group has its own.

  36. Rosie Redfield said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    I ordered Williams new little book "Style, the basics of clarity and grace" after LL recommended it a few months ago. It's wonderful, everything I've spent the last 20 years trying to discover for myself and teach my grad students and post-docs. I immediately ordered 5 more copies to give to my colleagues.

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I (so help me) only noticed *one* error in the whole thing before I got to the punch line, and it was not "most obviousest" or "set of rules be" but the disagreement in "we instantly notes".

    "The most obviousest set of rules be those whose violation we instantly notes,"

    I'm probably not very attentive as a reader.

    However in a futile attempt at redeeming myself, I'd like to say that

    (a) many of the "errors" are of course not really errors at all, which is why I pride myself in not having noticed them (yeah, right)

    (b) many of the actual errors are like the typos that fluent readers skim over without noticing, subconsciously correcting on the fly.
    It might be significant that I only picked up the *last* error in the remarkable sentence above.

    [ Also, I'm a doctor. What do you expect, literacy? You should see my handwriting …]

    Certainly, the fact that one does not notice an error in a text is not sufficient to prove that the form is not really erroneous; the (splendid) article maybe cheats a bit in this regard, as it mixes genuine unequivocal but easily overlooked errors with the breaking of daft Strunk-and-Whiteisms.

    To the extent that it's possible to miss the genuine errors like "most obviousest" this weakens the overall case about the stupidity of the unmotivated "rules".

  38. Philip said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    You might want to check out an article published 'way back in 1978: "Don't No Revolutions Hardly Ever Come be Here," by Suzette Elgin (College English 39. 784-87).

    It is written entirely in Ozark English, and even though every single sentence in the article is unacceptable in Standard Written Academic English, it is absolutely clear and comprehensible. It sure changed my mind about the diffenence between "substandard" and "nonstandard"–which is what Williams is doing, too.

  39. Ric said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    On first reading, I caught three or four errors. The “most obviousest rules” were part of it, and the clumsy double negation, mentioned above, “it is hardly the case that none of them have substance.” I did go over a second time and found punctuation errors, stray commas as well as missing ones, some spelling errors, but not all, the “ands,” “ors,” and “buts” at the beginning of a sentence, and several wordings that I know are pet peeves of Strunk, like “the fact that.” Trying to find as many instances as possible that are perceived as errors by someone felt too much like trying to find out what the teacher wants to hear, so I didn't finish the exercise.

    Though I missed almost all errors on first reading, I had a specific “holistic response,” as Williams would call it. I had to print out the article because I found it too hard to read online. Like other commenters, I had to go back again and again on some of the sentences to understand them fully. Blame my screen if you will, but I read online extensively, even long texts. I suspect that some of his intentional errors were the cause.

    I think Williams is correct in believing that it's entirely idiosyncratic what and how many errors and perceived errors we notice when we are reading for content. He included many mistakes that no self-respecting editor would let pass, like spelling and punctuation errors. Of course, an editor corrects them, not because everybody would notice them but because somebody will. An editor is paid to be overly sensitive with instances the ordinary reader will only respond “holistically” to. The reader may find the text “difficult” or “boring,” but the writer and the editor are supposed to have the tools to mend the text, like avoiding the passive voice or cutting needless words. Some style rules will work, even if they are misinterpreted as grammar rules or rules on “good usage”.

  40. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    Check out the punctuation here:

    "The two-state condition of response: {+/-}, is too crude to distinguish different qualities of response."

    Depending on your own personal preference, either the colon should be a comma, or both the comma and colon should disappear.

    Like others, I too was primed to pay attention to the language as well as the ideas. I'm also a copy editor by trade, and I like to think that I'm pretty good at seeing both the forest and the trees.

    Whilst reading, I found a bunch of things I, as a copy editor, would change. But it would require more time and introspection to pick out style changes from grammatical changes (many errors were obviously grammatical, some more obviouser than others). for example, I have a personal aversion to using "all of" instead of just "all," as in this sentence:

    "Because all of these actions crudely violate one's personal space we are justified in calling them "oafish"; all of them require that we apologize, or at least offer an excuse."

    I would say "Because all these actions…" but would of course leave "all of them." Note the missing comma after "space," too.

  41. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    Karen, of course "of idiots we have more than enough" is pompous. But "idiots we have more than enough of" is also pompous – perhaps sententious is more on the mark – and it's also wrong. Just because "of idiots" is right doesn't make it not pompous. It's an example of what I called pretentious writing – things that are not errors but function as errors, because they call attention to themselves and away from content, in the same way that errors do.

  42. bread & roses said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    I think I may be the most oblivious reader here. The only "error" I noticed was the whole of the "most obviousest" sentence, which I took to be a rhetorical device, and the incorrect italicization, which pretty much ruined my attempts to understand the sentences it occurred in. (in which it occurred?)

    I did notice that the essay was hard to read, but that felt like it mostly came from the technicality of the subject. One of the commenters' comments will illustrate:
    "It's funny that I noticed both errors (superlative morphology and subject-verb agreement) on first reading"

    I am a layman, and I have no clue what superlative morphology is. I also was not sure what qualified as subject-verb agreement until fairly far along in the essay, after several examples were given. Once I saw the example, I agreed that I usually notice errors like that, but the name of the error isn't enough for me to picture the error itself, on my own.

    So in the essay, where he shows all these writers violating their own rules, I often as not couldn't find the violations in the cited examples. In the death of a pig quote, I couldn't find the error that he was pointing out. Without Williams giving me the "right" example right there in the same sentence, I'm lost. So that jumping back and forth trying to understand what he's talking about made the whole essay awkward (though worthwhile) for me to read. The structure of an essay that gives examples like that seems especially primed for NOT noticing error. Which makes his point quite nicely.

    (oh, and "Idiots we have enough of" sounds much less pompous to me than "Of idiots we have enough")

  43. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    "We have more than enough idiots in our state institutions."

    (Which is, doubtless deliberately, ambiguous, of course – "state institutions" can be taken to include the legislature, the judiciary, and academic institutions, as well as those charged with caring for what were once called the feeble-minded.)

  44. Alan Gunn said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    Are the two incorrect versions of "Williams'" (or "Williams's) in this post something we were meant to catch, too?

  45. Amy said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    I noticed errors on my first reading, but because I was reading the article on the internet, I corrected them in the head before proceeding with the rest of the sentence. If I had read this article in print, the errors would have been much more jarring.

    So, at the end of the article, I did have to go back through and relocate the errors that truly bothered me on first reading. I counted 15, ignoring the errors that were offered as illustrations. In addition, I found 3 more errors that were the result of "heightened awareness" of such things as faulty parallelism.

    In the spirit of Williams' challenge, I include those items that struck me as incorrect, whether or not they end up being true "errors" as defined by more illustrious grammarians than myself.

    "…the unusual ferocity which an irregardless … can elicit."
    "The trouble with this kind of research, though, with asking people…"
    "And while simply illiteracy…"
    "one ought not have to appeal to a teacher…"
    "…I had been too soft on, …"
    "…and in three different experiences: the experience…"
    "…apparently not even any-one in the reading public…"
    "In the first, the most common way, we separate the objective material text from…"
    "…it is possible that your responses are quite different than mine."
    "like Category IV: those rules whose violations…"
    "…I prefer the two less words…"
    "That is why I refrain from pursuing another yet more finely drawn distinction: …"
    "But need I really have to assert that, just because many rules…"
    "…the kind of research I suggested before."
    "I have deposited with the Maxine Hairston…"

  46. Amy said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    On another note, Sarah Palin's candidacy highlighted Williams' {+violate, +response, +favorable} category. "Real" Americans absolutely loved Palin's poor diction and grammar.

  47. Killer said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    "Idiots we have more than enough of in our state institutions." I found this slightly convoluted, but I accepted it as Mitchell's effort to emphasize the connection to Zinsser's use of the word "idiot" in the preceding paragraph.

    Come to think of it, he must have been making a deliberate error in parallelism here. To be consistent with the two previous sentences in this paragraph, he might have written, "We have more than enough idiots in our state institutions."

    In the following sentence, "simply illiteracy" is a typo — it should be "simple illiteracy," another phrase Zinsser used in the preceding paragraph.

    (That sentence doesn't follow the paragraph's parallel structure, either, but I think you'd gut the sense of the sentence if you recast it to fit the parallelism.)

    Where Mitchell says, "And while simply illiteracy is the condition of billions…", the usage books I grew up on would say to avoid "while" in this context (because it's not referring to something happening simultaneously) in favor of, I suppose, "whereas" or "although." (In addition, of course, to the rule against starting with a conjunction.)

    In note 1 (footnoted at the end of this same "simply illiteracy" sentence), Mitchell quotes Zinsser thus: "These verbal high links can get just so high — " but surely the original must have read "verbal high jinks," right? This was one of numerous things that I assumed were just errors in transcription or optical character recognition as I read the piece.

  48. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

    Amy, thank you for saying something interesting. We are all caught up in Williams' game and so we are ignoring Williams' question – why do people get so bent out of shape over these rules? And the answer, I suspect, is at least in part that they are bound up with our own sense of class, status, and self-worth.

  49. Killer said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

    Mitchell says, "The other kind of linguistic behavior that arouses hostility in some includes bad puns and baby talk by those who are too old for it." I'd never thought of the idea of "linguistic behavior [arousing] hostility," but I immediately knew what he meant — I've felt that hostility to hearing a bad pun, and I've felt the shame of making a bad one!

    I would add a couple more that have raised my blood pressure. One friend talks in consistently too low a voice, so I'm always straining to hear him (although maybe that's not strictly a "linguistic" behavior). Another speaks elliptically, talking about people without using their last names or other clues, so my brain is always working to figure out who the hell she's referring to. I get decidedly cranky around both of these people.

    Has anyone else written about this hostility?

  50. Rick S said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    I was made suspicious of Williams' intention by both the content and the trivial errors in his earlier paragraphs, and "obviousest" was the pivot point where my suspicions tipped into certainty. Thus primed, I noticed perhaps a couple dozen errors in the succeeding text as I rapidly alternated between attention to form and to content. I did not catch every so-called error, but then I was also consciously trying not to "win the game" by scrutinizing more than I normally would; I wanted to give his hypotheses as fair a test as I could.

    Generally speaking, though, I think I have an uncommon sensitivity to some kinds of "errors" when I read. I'm very sensitive to orthographic and morphological flaws, maybe a little less to grammatical errors, still less to usage "errors" such as violations of parallel construction, and nearly oblivious to semantic oddities such as mixed metaphors; the latter I often miss unless I'm consciously looking for them.

    It may be that the likelihood that I'll detect an "error" is an inverse function of the amount of semantic information available in the minimum text in which it's expressed. That is, as the meaning of the sentence evolves, I become less attentive to its form and structure. Given the low information density/high redundancy of natural language, that seems only natural to me.

  51. Ian Preston said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    First time around (in the ordinary course of reading): "… simply illiteracy …"; "The most obviousest set of rules be those whose violation we instantly notes …"; also incorrect italicisations and hyphenations in the web version that are not actually in the original.

    Second time around (not quite deliberately searching but with heightened awareness): "Idiots we have more than enough of …"; incorrect capitalisation in "…, He replied"; numerous sentences beginning with "But", "And" or "Nor"; punctuation in "… condition of response: {+/-}, is …"; capitalisations of "It" and "Those" after semicolons; "… less words …"; sentence ending " … responding to"; "fine" as a clause with no verb.

  52. fred said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 11:58 pm


  53. Faldone said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:41 am

    Does use of the more general singular in the place of the correct third person singular count as an error?

    How about expecting people to remember whcih of 100 some odd "errors" they noticed the first time through after reading a 15 page article. Does that count as an error?

  54. Mary Kuhner said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    I'm very jet-lagged at the moment, and my reaction to reading this was an initial, "I bet there's some kind of errors we're supposed to notice, but never mind….This is kind of interesting, but it's hard going….No, too long, never mind" and I skipped to the end. I had to read too many sentences twice, or three times, to get the meaning, and it was too much work for my foggy-minded state.

    I think this actually cuts against his argument that these things don't matter. I note that several readers found the text difficult: it seems as though cumulative unnoticed errors do have an impact on the reader. (I'm not thinking of Strunk&White errors here, but the small but unequivocal problems in punctuation, verb agreement, pronoun agreement, and so forth.) Something in the brain is fixing them up on the fly, but maybe that part gets tired?

    The strong correlation, in our everyday experience (certainly of the Web!) between sloppy technicalities in the writing and sloppy thinking may also play a part. Someone who doesn't spell well, doesn't capitalize, has erratic spaces between words, and so forth may in fact be giving a good argument, well reasoned and presented. But it's not the way to bet. A dirty restaurant may have good food, but your stomach is hard to convince of that.

    I had a student, a few terms ago, who had an excellent grasp of the subject (genetics) but very weak English and very sloppy, crossed-out writing. I experienced cognitive dissonance every time I graded her homework; as soon as I saw it I "knew" it was going to be sloppily reasoned, and I had to convince myself otherwise (by painful reading and re-reading) every single time. I also had to resort to answer keys much more than usual, because I found it difficult to give her the benefit of the doubt on her occasional less than perfect answers–left to myself I would have graded her more harshly than her classmates.

    Perhaps the importance of the shibboleths (which I agree are pretty silly) is that they are markers for a writer who is functioning adequately and putting in a reasonable effort. If you are overwhelmed by things to read, you want to quickly triage those that aren't going to reward the effort. The essay set off those bells for me, and I guess it was the typos, even though I only noticed three or four explicitly (and not the big one!)

  55. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Mary Kuhner makes interesting points. I, like many others, had only an extremely small number of errors jump out at me explicitly upon first reading. However, also like many other readers, I did experience a hard-to-pin-down sensation of the writing seemingly slightly "off" or hard to follow in a few places, perhaps due to some extent to nonstandard phrasing or "errors".

  56. shani said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    Well, because you asked so nicely:
    1. most obviousest … (lived up to its definition, didn't it? Probably because it contains a pileup of letters that just doesn't exist in English.)
    2. the odd italics (I tried to write them off as faulty tags, but faulty tags don't tend to clean up exactly one word later.

    There were others I noticed, but not so much that I remembered them when I finished the paragraph.

    I think this actually cuts against his argument that these things don't matter. I note that several readers found the text difficult: it seems as though cumulative unnoticed errors do have an impact on the reader.

    To cut back, if I can: Now that I know my headache isn't a result of being out-of-practice in academic reading, I think the sheer variety of errors wore me out. Being someone who reads too many blogs (cough), I may notice and mentally correct a few errors, but they'll usually be a certain type of error (or a few), and I'll get used to the author's style soon enough. Hopping from mistake to mistake, Williams doesn't give us any time to adjust.

  57. Jadagul said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    I noticed very few errors on my first read-through, although I have a habit, perhaps picked up from reading here for too long, of classifying as "awkward" what others would call "wrong." I definitely did a double-take at several italicized passages, for instance, but decided the author was probably using some idiosyncratic rule I wasn't familiar with. However, it did take me three tries to actually get past the first half-dozen paragraphs because the overall stylistic effect was large enough to make reading difficult. My reaction was along the lines of "stereotypical academic trying to make himself sound important and butchering the language in the process"; but for the most part I couldn't have pointed to many specific errors.

    I also remember an omitted "be" somewhere, I think in one of the minimal pairs–and I'm quire sure it was there, since I stopped and triple-checked, thinking it must have been there and I missed it–but I can't find it again.

  58. Fran said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    I noticed "need I really have to", the "most obviousist" sentence, the colloquialism "what errors", 1 subject-verb disagreement (something about editors) and a couple of minor punctuation errors – 1 missing full stop somewhere and 1 random capital letter on a mid-sentence common noun. The italics threw me a couple of times, but I think that was a coding mishap. I thought it was pretty confusingly written in general but wasn't sure why. Didn't spot the other 90-something.

  59. freewaythor said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    Hi, I noticed "anomolies" instead of "anomalies" at the beginning of the fourth paragraph.

  60. Norman Ramsey said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    Something felt a bit off, especially at the opening, but the only error that hit me with any specificity was the misspelling of "anomalies."

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