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Is There a Logic of Linguistic Error?

In a clip from a news conference held in Sweden that has been replayed many times over the radio in the last two days, Barack Obama is heard uttering the following sentence: “The use of chemical weapons are abhorrent.” This sentence contains a flat-out grammatical error, since the subject of the sentence use is in the singular, whereas the verb are is the plural of the copula be. Obama is undeniably a native speaker of American English, and he nevertheless uttered this sentence without correcting himself.

Native speakers, let alone foreigners, make mistakes when speaking their own language. The gamut of errors is fairly broad, ranging from simple slips of the tongue to the most egregious grammatical errors of the sort just instanced by Obama. A number of causes for error come to mind, all of which come under the compass of linguistic competence, including the stress of the moment, memory lapses, etc. But is there such a thing as a logic of linguistic error? The question remains open, although in the case of a failure to coordinate grammatical number between subject and verb, one could appeal to the force of assimilation (however weak), since constructions involving a collective noun in the singular governing substantives in the plural is idiomatically aligned with plural number in the verb, e. g. a bunch of guys are standing in line, etc.

All the same, a grammatical error that goes uncorrected always raises the question of cognitive competence in general, not just one that pertains strictly to the utterer’s command of language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

3 Responses to “Is There a Logic of Linguistic Error?”

  • Robert Hatten says:

    I’m intrigued by the logic of linguistic error, as well. In the example from Obama, I could imagine that his intent changed mid-sentence to “chemical weapons are abhorrent”–or perhaps the markedness of near-location put pressure (in his spontaneous speech) on noun-verb agreement of the closest relevant lexemes. It’s an error I’ve made (but usually corrected when conscious of it) many times in the haste of speech.

    One form of lexical error I always try to stop and analyze in my own speech is the monstrous combination of two lexemes, either of which would work contextually in a single paradigmatic slot: e.g., /good/ and /right/ comes out as /gright/. I suspect that a split-second change in intention disrupts the articulatory process that is already in motion for the first word, adding the tail of the second at the last moment: e.g. /good/ replaced mid-articulation by /true/ comes out as /grue/. What is amazing is that intentional change is faster than executive control (substitution or negation) of articulation that has already been put into motion–I suspect it’s because the signal for articulation goes to a more automated motor routine that allows intention to race ahead without conscious control of every motion–and yet, articulation tries to respond, with the result being a bizarre articulatory merger of two words.

    In defense of Obama, assuming his mind was near-fully occupied with the next sentence (or entire discourse), working out its content and potential verbal expression, I’m not surprised that he defaulted to the proximate noun-verb connection, since that part of the articulation of the sentence may already have been “on automatic”–and in his case, not under conscious inspection for grammatical error, as it would have been if he were writing and going over his work.

    • Michael Shapiro says:

      Robert – Thanks very much for your apposite and detailed comment. I should at least have mentioned one of your points in my original post, namely the conflation of “Chemical weapons are abhorrent” with what came out. This is evidently what Obama meant to say, but then he composed a sentence viva voce an expanded version “use of chemical weapons” and left the copula in the plural.

  • Michael Lamb says:

    I’m afraid this is the logic of linguistic descriptivism. I do so share your feelings about egregious grammatical errors of the sort just instanced by Obama. We are of an age and background to have such feelings. I can only say we shall have to overcome them in this and many other cases. I at any rate shall, being so stroke-prone!

    The specific logic in this case is that the verb agrees with the nearest noun. I have been observing this with increasing resignation for a good few years now. It’s almost universal in the UK and Ireland at least. This sort of gibberish is not without venerable precedents: Think of the jumble that comes after ‘ante diem’ in Latin calendar dates.

    Hypercorrection of the gibberish is just as bad: “None of us is writing men” (WWI British officer planning the publication of a newspaper from the trenches in recent top-ranking British TV drama), when there was never anything wrong with “None of us are”, except for people fixated on its etymology rather than its equivalence to ‘not any’ as well as ‘not one/a’.

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