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? Continue reading