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Phenomenology of Error
November 28, 2011 5:23 AM   Subscribe

It has long been noted that style manuals and other usage advice frequently contain unintended examples of the usage they condemn. (This is sometimes referred to as Hartman's law or Muphry's law - an intentional misspelling of Murphy.) Starting from this observation, Joseph Williams' paper The Phenomenology of Error offers an examination of our selective attention to different types of grammatical and usage errors that goes beyond the descriptivism-prescriptivism debate. (alternate pdf link for "The Phenomenology of Error")

Responses and discussion:
Note: Williams' article was originally published in 1981. Most of the responses won't make sense with out reading the original article. Most focus on an approach introduced in the conclusion of his paper.
The Phenomenology of Error - Allan Metcalf
Even more Phenomenology of Error - David Beaver
The phenomenology of error - Mark Liberman
Orwell's liar - David Beaver
(Joseph Williams was the author of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History.)
posted by nangar (17 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
To much, man. I can't even get threw it.
posted by spitbull at 5:26 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's another article by Williams here. ("Why Is Writing Clear?")
posted by nangar at 5:32 AM on November 28, 2011


It has long been noted that style manuals and other usage advice frequently contain unintended examples of the usage they condemn.

And as the paper begins "I am often puzzled by what we call errors of grammar and usage" am I to assume that this is some sort of elaborate pun? Or are we?
posted by three blind mice at 5:35 AM on November 28, 2011


The likes of Idi Amin qualify as legitimate oafs.

This is grammatically correct, but Amin probably deserves a harsher classification that "legitimate oaf."

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.


This, on the other hand, is one of the truest sentences ever written. And I am pretty much a prescriptivist by inclination.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:48 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


> 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.

This, on the other hand, is one of the truest sentences ever written. And I am pretty much a prescriptivist by inclination.


Yep. Williams can be pretty funny.
posted by nangar at 5:54 AM on November 28, 2011


One might draw a Venn diagram of "Legitimate Oafs", "Murderous Tyrants" and "People Who Garrett Morris Has Impersonated".
posted by Xoebe at 7:18 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Related: Maxine Hairston's survey in "Not All Errors Are Created Equal" [pdf] describes the different attitudes people in business settings take toward different errors.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:09 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow, thanks audi. Yeah, that is kind of related. Hairston was supposed to collaborate with Williams on collecting some data related to the Phenomenology paper, but apparently it was never published.
posted by nangar at 8:21 AM on November 28, 2011


And as the paper begins "I am often puzzled by what we call errors of grammar and usage" am I to assume that this is some sort of elaborate pun? Or are we?

O.K., I'll bite: what is the pun you're seeing here?

If you're suggesting that there is some kind of grammatical error in the move from "I" to "we" I think you need to re-read. There's no contradiction in a singular member of a group expressing puzzlement at what the group collectively does. If there were, American mefites comments on American culture and politics would collapse into grammatical incoherence.
posted by yoink at 9:23 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's an excellent essay. I borrowed its bit on Barzun last month in a blog post about the that/which pseudo-rule. Williams' Style is one of my favourite books on writing.
posted by Stan Carey at 12:09 PM on November 28, 2011


yoink: If there were, American mefites comments on American culture and politics would collapse into grammatical incoherence.

Emphasis added.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:55 PM on November 28, 2011


From the linked "The Phenomenology of Error":
Yet in the last paragraph of "Death of a Pig," White has two faulty parallelisms, and according to his rules, an incorrect which:
. . . the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar . . . I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs. The grave in the woods is unmarked, but Fred can direct the mourner to it unerringly and with immense good will, and I know he and I shall often revisit it, singly and together, . . .
What does "faulty parallelism" refer to here?
posted by stebulus at 1:05 PM on November 28, 2011


What does "faulty parallelism" refer to here?

I have written this account:

A) in penitence
B) in grief
C) as a man who failed to raise his pig
D) to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.

According to the strict "rules" of parallelism A thru D should all have the same structure ("in X, in Y and in Z").
posted by yoink at 1:11 PM on November 28, 2011


Hm. Ok, but in White's "rule", he says that structure should be parallel if the constituents are "similar in content and function". Here the constituents differ: A and B specify his present emotional state as he writes, C explains the past events which led him to write, and D asserts what future effect he hopes to achieve by writing. Is this not the kind of difference we're supposed to consider?
posted by stebulus at 1:53 PM on November 28, 2011


This is a good time to drop a link to DFW's article Tense Present, a really fun read as well as great introduction to the grammar debate.
posted by Dmenet at 6:26 PM on November 28, 2011


This is a good time to drop a link to DFW's article Tense Present, a really fun read as well as great introduction to the grammar debate.
I've always thought that piece was painfully wrongheaded, and this excerpt sums up its wrongness as well as any:
An "authoritative" physics text presents the results of physicists' observations and physicists' theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a "valid" theory in the textbook — just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto "valid" part of the language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of "observed facts." It isn't scientific phenomena they're tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are — to be blunt — moronic.
I can't imagine what he was thinking when he wrote that, if indeed he was thinking at all.
posted by planet at 7:46 PM on November 28, 2011


languagehat's response to Wallace.
posted by nangar at 8:58 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


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