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The Semiosis of Grammatical Error

When a person speaking his native language makes a grammatical error, it can be chalked up to a number of reasons, including imperfect learning. But the commission of such an error––as long as it is no mere slip of the tongue––also has semiotic significance, as it connotes the utterer’s less-than-sure command of his language, which inclines his listener(s), in turn, to make negative assessments of that person’s credibility and social status. This situation is aggravated when the error is made in the public domain.

Here is a contemporaneous example from the context of American media speech.

On the November 17, 2010 broadcast of the WAMC-FM talk show, “The Roundtable,” Alan Chartock, a professor emeritus of political science and communications at the State University of New York at Albany, garbled the quasi-proverbial phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” by substituting the mistaken third-person singular form goes for the correct first-person singular verb form go. Nota bene: Mr. Chartock pronounced the phrase with complete aplomb, without the slightest hesitation or consciousness of its erroneousness. That a completely familiar saying should have been uttered containing such a hair-raisingly egregious grammatical error can only be interpreted as a sign that casts doubt on the speaker’s entire persona, including his education, his knowledge, and his gravitas. As the modern founder of sign theory, Charles Sanders Peirce, wrote in that landmark of American philosophy, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities”: “My language is the sum total of myself.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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