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Review of Joseph M. Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error”

I recommend that you read Joseph M. Williams’s The Phenomenology of Error as a companion piece to Patrick Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. Both readings form the foundation for thoughtful discussions into the specifics of sentence-level pedagogies. Just as Hartwell questions what “grammar” means, Williams questions what linguistic “error” means, and what epistemologies and methodologies underlie labeling an expression an error. Williams and Hartwell help us see that “error” and “grammar” are often used in a sloppy, untheorized way, which forces us to lump disparate items into the same broad category.

Joseph M. Williams, author of The Phenomenology of Error.

Williams begins by comparing linguistic errors with social errors. This comparison lets us view error not in the usual product-centric perspective, where error exists on the page of a text, but in a transactional perspective, where error is socially situated within a flawed transaction between writer and reader. At the same time, Williams points out a hole in the analogy between social error and linguistic error: social errors can cause big problems; linguistic errors largely cluster into the domain of the trivial.

Williams views the common methodologies of defining error (and the rules that demarcate error) with skepticism, for several reasons:

1. One common methodology has researchers survey people about whether a given expression contains an error. Such surveys, Williams believes, are flawed. The question itself is leading. It entices us to read more self-consciously, and self-conscious readers over-report perceived errors.

2. We report our own linguistic habits inaccurately. How we profess to use the language differs from how we actually do. As evidence, Williams cites several prominent handbook authors whose attested usage contradicts their own prescriptions for usage (sometimes in the same sentence!).

3. In determining error, we tend to appeal too trustingly to the authority of a handbook or a teacher.

4. Regardless of our methodology, no one can ever agree on what things constitute grammatical errors.

How do we address these issues? Williams begins by contrasting two ways of reading: how we read when we hunt for errors (the way many teachers read student essays), versus how we read when we read for content (the way we read experts’ writing). Williams believes that if we read the second way, we can develop a formal classification of at least four types of rules:

1. Those we notice if followed and if violated.

2. Those we notice if followed but not if violated.

3. Those we don’t notice if followed but do if violated.

4.  Those we never notice, regardless of whether followed or violated.

This last sort strikes me as an interesting category—vacuous errors printed in some handbooks but with no psycholinguistic reality. Each person might categorize any given rule into different categories. That’s expected. Crucially, when we read for content, not every rule (or “rule”) will enter into our consciousness.

Williams’s categorization of rules could be further elaborated in the way suggested by Hartwell’s five definitions of “grammar.” For any rule posited, what forces are said to motivate it?

• Does the rule differentiate “standard” written English from less prestigious dialects?
• Does it help to enhance rhetorical style?
• Is it a core part of the grammar of all dialects?
• Does it distinguish native speakers from ESL learners?
• Is it some grammarian’s pet-peeve?

Williams prescribes a big change for teachers and language researchers. Regardless of what “experts” posit as error, teachers and researchers should focus their attention on the sorts of errors that rudely interpose themselves when we read for content, rather than defining error by appealing to outside authority. (At the end of the essay, Williams makes the much celebrated revelation that his own essay embodies this principle: he has inserted numerous errors into the article, errors which most readers will—on their first read—overlook.)

At the end, Williams concedes that his proposal might prove futile. Why? We get more satisfaction from hunting for errors and chastising supposed linguistic transgressors. Grammar Nazism and the “gotcha!” approach to language satisfy us more than merely noting what jumps out to us on a non-self-conscious reading.

Three decades after this article was first published, Williams’s proposal has carried more influence than he could have predicted. For one, linguists and psycholinguists have developed even more sophisticated methodologies for carefully assessing various shades of grammaticality. Linguists search corpuses of actual speech and writing to see what usages are attested (Google enables anyone with an internet connection to do a crude version of this sort of research). Psycholinguists rely on furtive research techniques to gauge grammaticality, such as cameras that track reader’s eye movements, reaction-time tasks, and even brain imaging.

At the same time, the grammar Nazism of prior generations has faded somewhat from the collective consciousness. Consider three pieces of evidence:

1. The specific prescriptive rules that Williams discusses throughout his essay seem dated. In fact, when I recently assigned this essay to my advanced composition students, they were confused because they knew nothing about these rules.

2. Two of the most influential language commentators in the popular media—Geoffrey Nunberg and Grammar Girl—base their analysis and usage advice not on cocksure pronouncements of correctness or dogmatic appeals to authority, but on careful historical research and corpus research that takes into account an impressive range of linguistic subtleties.

3. If they’ve been trained in the past three decades, every writing teacher I’ve met tends to take a non-dogmatic approach to sentence-level rules and error.

But one force will always be working against Williams’s proposal: native-speakers’ over-confidence in what they know about their language. As native speakers, we are swimming in the English language. And we’ve been using it since we were toddling. So any native speaker can easily authorize themselves to wear the hat of the grammar Nazi, and inveigh against whatever “error” so happens to bug them.

Although I embrace Williams’s rejection of the handbook’s authority when it comes to my own writing, my principal critique of Williams’s article stems from this fact: Williams taught at The University of Chicago. His classrooms were composed of the country’s elite students. The sentence-level needs of his students share little in common with those of the under-prepared students that most of us teach. I’m guessing that Williams’s students wrote relatively clean, sophisticated sentences and found it easy to navigate the subtleties and ambiguities of English usage.

Under-prepared students don’t cope as well with these complexities. A legitimate argument can be be made that they benefit from the authoritarian clarity and structure of the rigid prescriptive rules that characterize handbooks. In this view, handbook rules function as a necessary evil that serves a purpose at a certain stage in writers’ development, like the five-paragraph essay. Williams probably lacked the perspective to appreciate this.

Review of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace By Joseph Williams

The genre of stylebooks and handbooks has long been dominated by a few big names like Strunk and White, along with an endless supply of metoo-ers. Their utility aside, these books are most remarkable for their sameness, and their hesitance to deviate from the established traditions. Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace—now in its tenth edition—stands out for its thoughtfulness and for its innovation.[1][2]

Style was the main text chosen for an advanced editing course that I took a decade ago, and I’m glad it was. I’ve heard my share of vague and prescriptive advice on writing—avoid the passive, be succinct, revise often—but Style gave me a more tangible set of practical tools to parse prose and rework syntax towards, as he calls it, “clarity and grace.” Williams’s program has since become second nature to me and it has sharpened my writing and my editing more than all the other books on the topic combined.

In this genre, many handbooks contain different permutations of the same advice. Some of this advice Williams has included, including eliminating wordiness and putting emphasis at the ends of sentences. But while Williams starts with the tried-and-true advice, I was struck by how much of what Williams advises was unusually specific and amazingly fresh.

Williams’s program is guided by two main principles: if your syntax follows a prototypical structure—one that’s simple to parse—and if make the syntax of your sentences mirror the semantics of your message, then your prose are made immensely clearer. Your reader skips the mental gymnastics required to interpret turgid prose.

In practice, this equates to a handful of rules of thumb. Avoid nominalizations, which are nouns derived from verbs, often ending in suffixes such as –tion and –ing. Use verbs to describe actions. Use nouns to describe characters. So far, this will change “our analysis of the company’s performance” to the more straightforward “we analyzed how the company performed.” He adds: put the topic, or something that refers back to prior discourse at the beginning of the sentence. Put the grammatical subject, verb, and object(s) as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible, with minimal interruptions between. Then pile everything else afterwards. At times I felt like this could be condensed into a few paragraphs, but of course, 300 pages makes this book a more substantial package, and it allows space for illustrative examples and practice exercises.

Williams doesn’t give advice in bullet-pointed directives or in disconnected bits and pieces; he builds an editing system that meshes as a unified whole. Each principle is fleshed out in an entire chapter, complete with practice exercises. In a way, it’s like learning to write in a foreign language (minus the foreign vocabulary): you learn how to express yourself in a new syntax that is contrary to the ways that many of us naturally write. Each of the chapters is presented as a lesson that builds on the previous. What you learn is an interconnected system of editing, a new way to dissect and reassemble sentences.

I especially want to emphasize how Williams does in this book four things that set him apart from just about every other writing guru out there:

1. He narrows the scope of his book to sentence-level revisions of nonfiction. Many others default into trying to encompass every phase the writing process of all genres. By setting his scope so narrow, Williams can delve into the excruciating details of the rhetoric of the sentence. His program can truly help you perfect one small part of your writing; just don’t expect this book to teach you how to do research or how to organize your paper.

2. He makes grammar useful. I have seriously wondered whether students who learn grammar learn to do anything practical besides parsing sentences and nitpicking “mistakes.” Many studies show it’s not helpful to better writing, but that may be because grammar is traditionally taught as a simplistic list of mechanical no-no’s. Williams differs in that he treats grammar as a descriptive nomenclature that allows editors to more consciously manipulate a sentence’s syntax in ways that mirror its semantics.

3. He rejects rigid prescriptivism, and urges that “[t]he alternative to blind obedience is selective observance.” Many other writing handbooks, such as Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, never make this distinction, so they freely mix their good advice with longstanding myths about not splitting infinitives and other silliness. That sort of advice helps your writing about as much as avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk helps your health.

4. He draws on linguistic research. Writing handbooks traditionally come from writers in the humanities, writers who have little time for or faith in empirical research. Williams breaks from tradition as he informs his text with Eleanor Rosch’s research in Prototype Semantics. The disciplines of Linguistics and Writing come together, creating very useful advice for writers.

Style is not a book for beginners. If you haven’t become comfortable with advanced writing, this book won’t help much. Also, it helps to already be familiar enough with traditional grammatical terminology that you can parse a sentence into its constituents. Although Williams does briefly review traditional grammar, you will get overwhelmed if you have to learn both the grammar terms and a style lesson simultaneously. As a college teacher, I wouldn’t recommend assigning this book in any class before second-year composition.

The biggest problem with this book is that it still remains such a secret.


[1] This review was originally written in 2004 in response to the sixth version of the book. Since then, the book has changed in small ways, and I’ve updated the review in small ways. Williams died in 2008, and Gregory G. Columb is now listed as a co-author.

[2] Full-disclosure: As a writing teacher, I have received free evaluation copies of textbooks from the publisher of this book, Pearson-Longman. I received no compensation in exchange for this review. In fact, the original version of this review was written half a decade before the publisher sent me free evaluation copies.