E is for Error

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Coming home one afternoon from my job teaching English to university students, I found my four-year-old son prancing around the kitchen with a beach towel cape around his neck, fighting evil superheroes with a wooden spoon. “Spencer,” I said, “How was your day?”

“Good,” he replied. “I swimmed with Mommy.”

“No!” I sternly reprimanded him. “The verb swim has an irregular past tense verb form!”

No, of course I didn’t say that. It’s not the language or the attitude one uses with a four-year-old. Instead, I employed what is called a recast: “Oh, you swam with Mommy.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I swam with Mommy.”

Spencer’s use of swimmed is a common but intriguing utterance that gives us an insight into childhood language acquisition. It is highly unlikely that he had ever heard the construction from either his parents or his articulate seven-year-old brother. It’s possible he might have picked it up from one of his four-year-old friends but, more likely, it was an illustration of a young and flexible mind’s ability to generate grammar rules and then apply them in conversation. In this case, Spencer is likely to have intuitively noticed the pattern of regular past formation with ‑ed, in words such as walked (but not run/ran), talked (but not speak/spoke), and napped (but not sleep/slept). He then naturally—and experimentally—applied the formula to the word swim.

But was the resulting utterance a mistake or an error?

Mistakes and errors seem like interchangeable terms but, in linguistic terms, they are quite different. Even the most competent native speakers make countless mistakes in the course of a day’s speech. Often referred to as slips of the tongue, these mistakes tend to be mispronunciations or grammatical lapses that native speakers immediately know are wrong. We mispronounce words when we’re tired, or interrupted, or are speaking more quickly than the speed of thought; our brains and tongues are not in sync.

Similarly, grammatical lapses often occur because we begin saying one thing, and then our thoughts are diverted and we end by saying something else. Typical of this type of mistake are subject-verb agreement issues (Give me one or two apple—I mean apples.). Other common errors are article mistakes (I want the book—I mean, a book.), or preposition mistakes (Get in—I mean on—the bus.). Self-correction is so common that it has its own linguistic label: repair.

In texts and emails, we tend to ignore such problems as the products of stumbling fingers, and in other computer-based writing, our errors might be automatically corrected. In speech, we tend to self-correct unless our message is urgent and/or obvious mistakes are unlikely to interfere with meaning. If the listener knows what was meant, it’s most usually the polite choice not to correct the speaker. On the other hand, a speaker’s mistake that seems like an important point or one that throws the conversation into ambiguity, sometimes prompts a listener to ask for clarification. In the sentence “While I was in Germany, I went to Brussels.” might prompt the listener to query, “Did you mean Brussels or Berlin?” In this case, it might have been a slip of the tongue and the speaker did mean Germany’s capital, Berlin, or perhaps it was about going on an international trip to Belgium’s capital of Brussels.

But what about errors?

Errors are mistakes that we make without realizing that they are wrong. In the 1950s, in a broadcast speech, American president Dwight Eisenhower mispronounced the word nuclear as nuculer, a transposition of sounds that is so common that linguists have also coined a term for it: metathesis. With such an authoritative speaker pronouncing a hitherto little-used word in this way, countless Americans and others around the world adopted and spread the incorrect pronunciation.

In other cases, mispronunciations are dialectical. The sentence “I seen a dancing dog.” grates on the grammatical ears of those who feel that it should be “I saw a dancing dog.” or “I have seen a dancing dog.” But although speakers using the seen construction might consider it proper spoken usage, they are less likely to use it in a written form.

Curiously, some language errors arise from a positive behavior: extensive reading. Those who read a great deal, especially children, tend to make assumptions about the pronunciations of words by sounding them out. But because English is an amalgam of the orthographic conventions (how a word is spelled) based on the conflicting rules of its many contributing languages, the relationship between the letters on the page and how a word is pronounced can be easily confused. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, a great advocate for reforming English language spelling, illustrated the conundrums with the invented word ghoti, which he claimed was a reasonable spelling of fish if you used the gh in enough, the o in women, and the ti in nation. Similarly, a long a sound is found with variant spellings in the words break, cake, neigh, pay, rain, and they. Those who are not great readers tend to be more accurate in their pronunciations, or at least they are if well-spoken family members and peers surround them.

Often, through frequent and unchallenged use, errors become fossilized; deeply fixed in a speaker’s or a writer’s repertoire. These fossilized errors are difficult to remediate. The first step is to raise an awareness of the error or errors, although such explanations are often met with disbelief.

My own experience in academic writing includes the use the plural of focus–foci–in place of the more common focuses. In addressing this odd word, I followed my young son’s example and generated a rule for myself, reasoning that the hard c must be common to all three words in the family: focus, focuses, foci.

But no, my rule doesn’t hold; foci is an exception as the c is soft—or at least that was what I was shamed into believing by an elderly and erudite British friend. However, it turns out that there are four common pronunciations: American English foe-ky or foe-cy, or British English foe-kee or foe-cee.

Maybe I’ll just stick to focuses.

Dr. Ken Beatty, TESOL Professor at Anaheim University in California, has also taught in Asia, Canada, and the Middle East, and lectures widely on language teaching and learning from the elementary through university levels. He has given 200+ teacher-training sessions in 25 countries and is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).