ABA Journal

What's an Error in Language?


Photo of Bryan Garner by Terri Glanger.

What constitutes a language error? Interesting question—and one that lawyers, as professional rhetoricians, should have a keen interest in. It plunges us straightaway (should that be straightway?) into the middle of what the late David Foster Wallace, in his collection of essays Consider the Lobster (2006), called “the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography [involving] ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor.”

One of Foster’s essays was a very long (95-page) review of Garner’s Modern American Usage. Wallace took my side of the debate against certain linguists who insist that native speakers of English cannot make a mistake. So in their view, I done it cannot be disapproved. Nor any other barbarism, from between you and I to *They wasn’t there.

(In the best linguistic tradition, I preface errors with an asterisk—precisely to note that they’re wrong.)

In the legal world, as in the world of affairs generally, any serious departure from “Standard English” (or what Wallace called “Standard Written English”) constitutes an “error.” What’s a serious departure? Well, that’s complicated. My 1,000-plus-page GMAU documents seriousness word by word and phrase by phrase. But to a traditionalist (a supporter of Standard Written English), there decidedly is an answer to the question “What’s an error?”

Before I discourse more on that tricky point, let me dispel the idea that I set up and knock down straw men (even the most gender-neutral writer can’t insist on straw people). The ABA Journal editors have allowed me here to depart from our usual style by using a few endnotes to document my sources. So let’s consider some bizarreries among modern linguists’ doctrines.

Click here to read the rest of “What’s an Error in Language” from the December issue of the ABA Journal.

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