What Is a Grammatical Error?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Grammatical errors being marked in red pen on a document

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Grammatical error (also known as error, usage error, grammar error or mistake, bad grammar) is a term used in prescriptive grammar to describe an instance of faulty, unconventional, or controversial usage, such as a ​misplaced modifier or an inappropriate verb tense. Also called a usage error. Compare grammatical error with correctness.

It's also known as: error, usage error, grammar error or mistake, bad grammar

Grammatical errors are usually distinguished from (though sometimes confused with) factual errors, logical fallaciesmisspellings, typographical errors, and faulty punctuation.

Interestingly, many people tend to view usage errors primarily as gaffes or potential sources of embarrassment, not as impediments to effective communication. According to an ad for an "amazing book" on usage, "Mistakes in English can cause you embarrassment, hold you back socially and on the job. It can make you look awkward and hide your true intellect." (Note that in the second sentence the singular pronoun it has no clear referent. Many English teachers would regard this as a grammatical error—specifically, a case of faulty pronoun reference.) 

Examples and Observations

In "Correct English," J. T. Baker says "The expression 'grammatical error' sounds, and is, in a sense, paradoxical, for the reason that a form cannot be grammatical and erroneous at the same time. One would not say musical discord... Because of the apparent contradiction of terms, the form grammatical error should be avoided and 'error in construction,' or 'error in English,' etc., be used in its stead. Of course one should never say, 'good grammar' or 'bad grammar.'"

“We believe, as do most linguists, that native speakers do not make mistakes,” per Peter Trudgill and Lars-Gunnar Andersson, who were quoted in "Errors in Language Learning and Use."

Garner on Grammatical Errors

"If descriptivists believe that any linguistic evidence validates usage, then we must not be descriptivists. Hardly anyone wants to be a nonjudgmental collector of evidence. It’s far more interesting and valuable to assemble the evidence and then to draw conclusions from it. Judgments. Rulings. To the extent that 'the masses' want such reasoning—as one could only wish—it’s because they want to use language effectively," says Bryan A. Garner in his New York Times article, "Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?"

In "Garner's Modern American Usage," Garner notes "Because grammatical may mean either (1) 'relating to grammar' [grammatical subject] or (2) 'consistent with grammar' [a grammatical sentence], there is nothing wrong with the age-old phrase grammatical error (sense 1). It's as acceptable as the phrases criminal lawyer and logical fallacy."

Grammar and Usage

"Usage is a concept that embraces many aspects of and attitudes toward language. Grammar is certainly only a small part of what goes to make up usage, though some people use one term for the other, as when they label what is really a controversial point of usage a grammatical error," according to "Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary."

Error Analysis

"Error analysis, as a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach to error, provides a methodology for determining why a student makes a particular grammatical error and has been a potentially valuable borrowing from this field [research in second-language acquisition], one that could have altered the prescriptive drilling of standard forms which still comprises much of basic writing texts. Unfortunately, however, error analysis in the composition classroom has generally served to simply keep the focus on error," says Eleanor Kutz in "Between Students' Language and Academic Discourse."

The Lighter Side of Grammatical Error

Here's some dialog from the 18th episode of The Simpson's 12th season, the "Trilogy of the Error."

First mobster: Hey. They's throwin' robots.
Linguo: They are throwing robots.
Second mobster: It's disrespecting us. Shut up a'you face.
Linguo: Shut up your face.
Second mobster: Whatsa matta you?
First mobster: You ain't so big.
Second mobster: Me an' him are gonna whack you in the labonza.
Linguo: Mmmm...Aah! Bad grammar overload. Error. Error.
[Linguo explodes]

Sources

Baker, Josephine Turck, editor. Response to a letter. Correct English, 1 Mar. 1901, p. 113.

Garner, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. 3rd ed, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Garner, Bryan A. "Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?" The New York Times, 27 Sept., 2012.

Kutz, Eleanor. "Between Students' Language and Academic Discourse: Interlanguage as Middle Ground." Negotiating Academic Literacies, edited by Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed, 2003.

"Trilogy of Error." The Simpsons, written by Matt Selman, directed by Mike B. Anderson, 20th Century Fox, 2001.

Trudgill, Peter and Lars-Gunnar Andersson. 1990, quoted by Carl James in Errors in Language Learning and Use. Addison Wesley Longman, 1998.