The Phenomenology of Error

Phono- pheno- what???

Don’t worry, this isn’t about philosophy. It’s about error—grammatical, usage, spelling error—matters on which we all are self-proclaimed experts.

But where does phono- phenomenology come in?

It happens that “The Phenomenology of Error” is the best article I’ve ever read about those errors. It’s the article you have to read if you want to make sense of why we fight so furiously over minutiae of grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like.

It was published 30 years ago, but it’s surprising how little has changed in questions of usage since then. We’ve been embroiled in a Hundred Years War. (Several hundred, actually.)

Fortunately, the article isn’t from a philosophy journal, but from a publication aimed at college teachers of freshman composition. You don’t have to know a thing about phenomenology (got it right that time!) to understand it.

If you must know, phenomenology has something to do with what writers write and how readers read it, and how each reader reads differently. And that’s what this article is about, the different responses of educated readers to the same matters.

The article was published in College Composition and Communication, Volume 32, No. 2, May 1981, pages 152-168. The author is the late Joseph M. Williams of the University of Chicago, a noted voice of reason and insight amid the armies that clash by night over usage. Williams’s writing about writing, exemplified in his 1981 book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, makes other entrants in the competition for the attention of would-be writers (such as Strunk & White) seem shallow.

A PDF of the article is available, free, here.

If you stop here to read the article, good for you. But in case you’d like to know a little more first, I’ll help you prepare for the journey.

Williams’s article isn’t really a treatise. It’s more of a travelogue. And as guide, Williams is less a Dante than a Darwin. He wanders through the errorscape, wondering at the curious flora and fauna that have evolved.

But he does have a Dantesque vision as he circles ever closer to error proscribed and obliviously performed by the same authors. First there is the writer who performs in his fiction what he proscribes in his textbook. (E.B. White, to be specific.) Then he finds usage handbooks themselves violating the rules they present, even to the point of rules broken in their very presentation. The culminating example comes from a 1972 style manual for technical writers:

Emphasis is often achieved by the use of verbs rather than nouns formed from them, and by the use of verbs in the active rather than in the passive voice.

But this is not just a catalog of horrors, a haunted house of self-contradiction. Williams asks why a usage expert can point out errors yet not notice them in his or her own writing. And he provides not a scolding, but an explanation. That’s where phenomenology comes in.

I’m tempted to attempt an explanation of his explanation here, but that would not do justice to his full and thoughtful exposition. Let me just assure you once again that you won’t get snaggled up by that word phenomenology.

Indeed, the whole article is a model of clarity and grace. Just be ready for the little curve ball he throws at the end.

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