What’s in a mistake?

Cover of an early edition of Sir Ernest Gowers The Complete Plain Words

Deliberating over errors

By Phil Hall

Look, we all have our voice. We all have our idiolect. There are a vast number of dialects, each with variations in their lexicon, grammar and pronunciation. It’s hard to pin down what’s a mistake and what isn’t. We have subsets of speech for different professions – jargon. Different sets of people use language to mark out their identities: LGBT people, young people, police and thieves.

And then there is interlanguage; that particular, intermediate brand of language that isn’t quite your native tongue and not quite the target language. Interlanguage has its own rules. Rod Ellis, Pit Corder and Jack Richards are important people to read when if you want to get to grips with error analysis. Michael Swan and Michael Lewis are interesting, too.

It was Noam Chomsky who moved us away from prescription and proscription, dirty words now, by saying that language and grammaticality are a question of native speaker linguistic competence.

So, to tell anyone who speaks a language as a native speaker that their language is ungrammatical is a sign of priggish arrogance. Many non-linguists, especially some working in mainstream education, journalism and literature, suffer from this condition. They are convinced that they know better, when they don’t. So, in this way standard varieties of English can become normative, and even quite oppressive.


Hart’s rules for Compositors and Printers, OUP

This prescriptiveness is more common in countries which were former colonies. The indigenous peoples and their languages have been sent to the back.

Countries like Australia, Canada and the USA are constantly absorbing non-native English speakers. In the USA grammar is much more important than it is in the UK because establishing English as the language of choice requires an imposition.

In contrast, in the UK, the home of the English language, the standard variety cannot be imposed. No one will dare tell a Scot, a Jordie, or a Cockney that their language is flawed and ungrammatical. They would deserve a face full of fist.

Because description now took precedence over prescription, the effort then went into developing grammars based on samples of what people actually said, rather than on what an elite trained in Latin and Greek thought they should say.

The first modern English language corpus in the UK was established at University College London (UCL), the Survey of English. If you could logically induce rules from enough samples using tagging, concordances and statistical analysis, the theory went, then you could build up your descriptive grammar.

Many non-linguists, especially those working in mainstream education, journalism and literature, still haven’t caught up. They judge dialectal variation using the yardstick of RP, the language of the British upper middle and middle class; lacking understanding, they are often unaccountably convinced that they know better.

John Sinclair at Birmingham University was also a pioneer of descriptive lexicography and grammar. Collins published an English dictionary and then an English grammar based on Sinclair’s work and on a corpus.

In the end, descriptive accounts of grammar and words can turn out to be prescriptive, too. The measure of what is correct and incorrect is now a question of prototypicality. In other words, the central, typical examples of usage form the basis of grammar and dictionary entries. Once more, dialectal variation is sidelined because these grammars and dictionaries use frequency as their guide.

Dialect is a function not only of region, but of class. In other words, the stronger your accent, the poorer and less educated you are, the closer to the ground you are. The more connected you are to a specific region. So there is a stigma attached to accent in the UK based on class prejudice.

Patois and pidgin are developing dialects of English, they become languages in their own right. Don’t get them wrong. The people who speak them are not making mistakes with their English. It is not your place to correct them.

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

George Bernard Shaw

The distaste for Cockney vowels some people have, for example, is quite irrational. The actual sounds that are so disliked in Cockney English appear also in Received Pronunciation (RP) but in different positions.

So the Cockney poor sounds like paw and sure sounds like shore. But of course the vowel in Cockney poor is also used in the RP pronunciation of door and no one has a problem with the aesthetics of the sound of door.

Cockney, and its cousin, Estuary English, are winning out anyway.

When it comes to respecting the different dialects of English in the UK, The BBC and other institutions have tried to introduce positive discrimination. But the British caste system endures. Just listen to Boris Johnson‘s piffle.

The challenge for teachers and students is to understand which errors we need to focus on when we correct: teachers tend to invoke the ideas of Lev Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development, or Zippedy, as they call it in the States.

Why do people learning English forget the ‘s’ on the third person singular form of the verb in the present tense?

First, there is the knowledge that we are supposed to have mastered. We master it; all except for some irritating, small, persistent errors. Why do people learning English forget the ‘s’ on the third person singular form of the verb in the present tense?

Well, it’s possible that these are developmental errors, in which case the language needs to be lined up in a syllabus to be learned in a specific sequence – if only we knew what that was. Or else they are fossilised errors, errors that are completely fixed in place, errors and can only be removed through prolonged conscious effort. Let’s call these mistakes ‘slips‘.

In second place, there are the errors that teachers focus on. These are the errors that you find at the fuzzy border between what a student knows and doesn’t yet quite know. What we know gives us traction. It helps us to clarify and understand. For this kind of error, there is a rule that can be explained in more detail, there are exceptions to the rules that can be pointed out, and so the student ‘gets it’.

We ask students if they can embrace the red ink. We ask students to accept the review notes on their computer screens and to learn from their mistakes. This can be quite painful if the teacher is unkind and undiplomatic or if the student is stubborn and foolish.

Many of these kinds of mistakes are caused by interference from the mother tongue. We call it L1 interference. For example, people who make the mistake by saying people is are usually from countries which speak Latin languages. In English it is correct to say people are.

And finally, in third place, there are the proper mistakes where the student simply doesn’t know the right answer because it is out of his or her ken. Mistakes like this are the result of brave, exploratory leaps into the dark: perhaps a student might use the subjunctive in English without knowing anything about it, or use it when their knowledge of conditionals and models and the different ways available to express the future is still rocky. People who make these mistakes are the kind of people who try to use words they have never used before or seen in context. They are risk takers.

many teachers overcorrect because they want their students to sound more like themselves

Another important point: many teachers overcorrect because they want their students to sound more like them, like the teacher. The student might say something grammatical, but they are slapped down, anyway. If the student doesn’t say the thing in the teacher’s way, then the student is ‘wrong’. This is oppressive. These teachers are trying to make little clones of themselves. What is necessary is that teachers respect the student’s voice.

This means that, although the teacher may be able to think of a better way of saying something, if the student has said something correctly, then what they say must be accepted as their authentic voice, as part of the developmental process of learning a new language. To validate students boosts student confidence.

Without their own voices, students are struck dumb and feel the need to copy. If a student says anything odd, but grammatical, we should accept their mistake as correct, as a manifestation of progress.

In the case of English, to have an economical style is important. The best styleguide to ‘good’ English are the simple guidelines given by George Orwell in his book, Politics and the English Language:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

We also rely for guidance on good style, on the work of the Campaign for Plain English inspired by the book written by Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words. There is Harts, Rules for Compositors and Printers published by the OUP, and The King’s English by Henry Watson Fowler.

To our students advantage, they should be helped to understand that an effective style in English uses short words, short sentences and short texts. This should make it easier for them to learn the language. There is no need for verbiage and ornamentation; Prescription aside, English is expressed best in simple, clear language. I should really take that advice.

There is no need for verbiage and ornamentation; English is expressed best in simple, clear language

Of course, making mistakes is absolutely normal, more normal than that if you have a touch of the dyslexias. Language performance is always plagued with many errors which, on reflection, we can usually fix. Anyone who writes knows this. You can go through your text ten times and still find mistakes every time.

Making mistakes can also be a problem of avoidance. In other words, the mistake is that you avoid using words or language because you are not sure how to. How do you measure avoidance errors? How do you measure things which are not there?

Then there are the mistakes that come from our psychology; so called Freudian slips. Our use of language can reveal so much more about us than what we want it to. This is where forensic linguistics can come in if it’s needed.

Stylistically, you can imagine someone might even choose to make mistakes consciously in order to create an effect, or go against the grain. Or, perhaps, someone might make a mistake in style using the wrong register of English. Maybe they will avoid using a certain style because it goes against the grain. We can’t know what is in other people’s minds and so, when the mistake is stylistic, we simply can’t see it.

I have been correcting other people’s mistakes (and my own) for nearly 35 years. It’s not something I really enjoy. What I do enjoy is helping people’s voices come through in their speaking and writing. That’s a little like editing, isn’t it?

We can’t know what is in other people’s minds and so, when the mistake is stylistic, we simply can’t see it.

The last redoubt for me was punctuation. But then, a department head who had faith in me had a bright – and slightly silly idea. Why didn’t I design and give a course on correct punctuation to the academic staff of a whole university? Well, I had fun designing the course. It turns out that punctuation is a matter of discretion. For example, you can choose whether to use commas, dashes, semicolons or brackets, but they all do, more or less, the same thing, they separate a word, phrase or sentence out from a text. The question is not: What is the correct punctuation? The real question is: What do I want to say and what’s the best way to say it?

My favourite rule for correction comes from the Internet. Here it is:

Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself.

Skitt’s law

I had a line manager I liked, Peter Stanfield. He made some minor error in an email and an obnoxious man who had an overdeveloped sense of his own ability, corrected Peter publicly.

I remembered the Internet rule. The Internet rule says that every correction of someone else’s punctuation, grammar or spelling will contain its own mistakes. Sure enough, he had made a mistake. I pointed it out to him sharply in the same round robin, just to give him a bit of his own medicine.

So yes, this post might contain errors, but beware the log in your own eye. And anyway, I’ll go back and correct them if you do find them, so you’ll just be helping me.


Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.