Defendants wrongly committed of a crime

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Reader Sarah C pointed out an interesting turn of phrase in Jordan K. Turgeon, "Myths About Memory", The Huffington Post 8/3/2011:

According to previous research, when defendants wrongly committed of a crime were later exonerated by DNA testing, the primary evidence in the original case often came from an eyewitness. [emphasis added]

(Obligatory screenshot here…)

Sarah asked

Is this a mixed phonological-semantic error, or a malapropism in the making? At first I thought it was a mixed error and the result of perhaps too-short on-line publishing deadlines, but Googling for the exact phrase turns up close to 300K results!

The short answer: I'm not sure, but I think that this is an example of what's called in the trade a "Fay-Cutler malapropism". And I also believe that this is what Sarah means by "a mixed phonological-semantic error". Let me explain my superficially unhelpful answer.

It's an "error" because if you showed the writer the sentence and invited him to review it, he would (I surmise) say "oops" and correct "committed" to "convicted". In contrast, a (classical) malapropism, as deployed by one of the Mrs. Malaprops of the world, is a case where the speaker or writer has entered the wrong word into their mental lexical, and would not be aware that they're making a mistake even if they had the opportunity to review what they said or wrote.

The error in this case is "phonological" because committed and convicted are both three-syllable words with medial stress, whose initial and final syllables are almost the same. And the error is "semantic" because someone is convicted of having committed an offense, so that there's a close relationship in the psychological space of meanings.

Most word-substitution errors in speaking are of a similar kind. For more on the issues involved, see David Fay and Anne Cutler, "Malapropisms and the Structure of the Mental Lexicon", Linguistic Inquiry 8(3), 1977; and Arnold Zwicky, "Classical Malapropisms", Language Sciences 1(2) 1979.

Why do I think that this case is a Fay-Cutler malapropism, i.e. a (written form of a) speech error?

For one thing, if we look at a somewhat edited collection, namely the COCA corpus of 425 million words of recent American English, the pattern "committed of a crime" gets no hits, while "convicted of a crime" gets 99, and "committed a crime" gets 236.

Google Books search yields 8 results — but at least five of these are bogus.

The first one is an OCR error — it's presented this way in the Google Books snippet:

But it looks like this in the preview:

The second one is genuine, but the third one is just another copy of the same book.

The fourth one seems not to have been written by a native speaker of English:

The meaning of the Prophet's saying is that what they inherited from ancestors from the pre-Islamic age, or what they committed of a crime was dropped.

The fifth one spans a clause boundary:

Under the criminal law, a condonation (forgiving an offender and treating him as if the offense had not been committed) of a crime by the injured individual does not prevent the state from prosecuting the offender for the same act in a criminal court.

As does the seventh one:

If you so find, then you have found him guilty, for each and every time the offense was committed, of a crime not only against the laws of his country, but against the laws of morality.

The eighth one has no preview of any kind available. So we're left with two genuine cases in ~15 million books = ~10^12 words. There's this one, which has some other nearby problems as well:

And this one, which ditto:

It's true that a general Google web search for "committed of a crime" claims "about 269,000 results", but such estimates on the first page of a Google search are notoriously unreliable. The number of available results from Google in this case is actually 186. (For a serious of complex and tedious reasons, explained at excessive and speculative length in various posts that I'm too lazy to locate just now, the actual number of instances on the web is surely much greater than 186, but also (almost) surely much less than 269,000. Where it that range it falls is, alas, essentially impossible to determine.)

So whatever causes this substitution, it's pretty rare. And the substitution has the general lineaments of a Fay-Cutler-type speech error: same number of syllables, same stress pattern, same lexical category, same first and last syllables.


  1. Will said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    Committed and convicted are so close semantically that I had to read the quoted passage three times before even noticing anything unusual.

    Possibly adding to the likelihood of this error is the fact that "wrongly committed of a crime", while not grammatical, actually makes quite a bit of sense in the context if you it take to be an elision for "wrongly committed [to jail] [for] a crime".

  2. Will said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    Mot to say that the author actually meant that as such — I'm sure it was just a Fay-Cutler malapropism. But that potential reading could lend to making it more difficult to prevent/catch.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    How does one assess the likelihood (vel non) that it's a Cupertinoism? Is there a way other than experimental trial and error to see if there's a physically-not-implausible way to mistype "convicted" that will lead a significant-market-share spellchecker to give "committed" as the first suggestion? Since "m" is next to "n," that part is easy . . .

  4. mkvf said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    Does 'serious' for 'series' count as the same sort of error?


  5. Don Sample said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    The Huffington Post article seems to be paraphrasing the comments on the results of the survey by Chabris and Simons, where they say:

    "Many people have been wrongly convicted of crimes based on the testimony of confident, but mistaken eyewitnesses. We know this from cases where the convicted person was later exonerated by DNA testing."

    I don't know what that means about the type of malapropism committed.

  6. Adrian said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    "…the actual number of instances on the web is surely much greater than 186, but also (almost) surely much less than 269,000."

    I think the actual number will be rather closer to 246 (Google's current tally) than to 269,000. I think you shouldn't give that higher figure any credence whatsoever.

  7. dazeystarr said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

    @mkvf: "Does 'serious' for 'series' count as the same sort of error?"

    What about "lexical" for "lexicon"? :)

    On my first reading of the original passage, I reconstituted the bolded phrase as "defendants wrongly accused of committing a crime", and it was only on the second reading that I realized the word "accused" wasn't actually there. I assume that since the phrase "wrongly accused" is so familiar, my brain just slipped the second word in there based on usage patterns and context?

  8. GregT said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

    At least in Australian law, "committed" has a unique meaning that would render the statement factually valid.

    Until recent changes to law in some states, defendants charged with an indictable offence would appear in a lower court, where the prosecution would present its evidence and the defence would have an opportunity to argue that the evidence, at its highest, was not capable of proving the alleged offence beyond a reasonable doubt. Cases which survived this test would then be committed to a higher court for trial. (The process is known as a committal.)

    Committal of a charge is thus a separate and lower standard of proof to both guilty and conviction and it may reasonably be of use for certain statistical and legislation purposes.

    It's still an odd phrasing though; it would more usually be expressed as "defendants committed to trial for" rather than "defendants committed of" so I suspect it remains an accidental substitution on the part of the author.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    I read the sentence several times trying to figure out what the error was before it was pointed out. This is kind of shocking to me–how could I overlook something so glaringly wrong? And it seems I'm not alone. So the error is not just a mis-production–there's something about the substitution that made it invisible, to my brain at least. Weird.

  10. JFM said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    My spontaneous reaction was to correct the preposition so it would read "wrongly committed for a crime", which is what I would have assumed that the author meant.

    Why assume that the author's error lies in the choice of verb?

  11. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 3:23 am

    To clarify what JFM meant above: there is a relevant sense of commit that would validate the sentence, the one glossed in the OED as:

    3. spec. To consign officially to custody or confinement; to send to prison, esp. a short time or for trial

    In this reading, it would be people jailed for a crime they didn't commit that were later exonerated, which is probably an important subset of the people convicted for a crime they didn't commit.

    I doubt this is what the author had in mind, though.

  12. Lauren Gundrum said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    Rod/Will: I did the same exact thing! It's interesting that we can glance over something like that even in a headline. Perhaps it is because the word "committed" is so strongly associated with "crime," as Will points out.

  13. Rod Johnson said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    The feeling I got when I finally "saw" the error was not unlike the feeling when I "see" an optical illusion. It's kind of like the perceptual flip you feel when you switch interpretations of Necker cubes–you can see one or the other as a… gestalt, I guess, but you can't see both simultaneously. Each blocks the other. With Sarah C's sentence, it seems as if the fact that I could get a kind of semantic gestalt from the erroneous sentence blocked me from seeing any other interpretation, or something.

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