What Are Assemblage Errors in English?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Shel Silverstein, Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook (HarperCollins, 2005).

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In speech and writing, an assemblage error is an unintentional rearrangement of sounds, letters, syllables, or words. Also called a movement error or slip of the tongue, an assemblage error is a verbal lapse that sometimes leads to unintended consequences. Assemblage errors can offer clues as to what a speaker is thinking on a subconscious level. As linguist Jean Aitchison explains, assemblage errors "provide important information about the way humans prepare and produce speech."

Why Assemblage Errors Occur

William D. Allstetter explains in "Speech and Hearing" that assemblage errors can indicate a speaker is thinking too much before talking, not that they have failed to think about what they would say before saying it:

"[A] common form of assemblage error is anticipation, which occurs when a person utters a word or sound too early. Instead of saying that he or she is about to make an 'important point,' a person might anticipate the 'oi' sound and say 'impoitant point.' Words can also be anticipated, as in the phrase 'when you buy the laundry,' instead of 'when you take the laundry, buy me some cigarettes.' In other cases, people sometimes repeat sounds, saying a 'tall toy' instead of a 'tall boy.'"

Allstetter adds that people construct "entire phrases" in their heads before speaking a word. Like a puzzle aficionado who places a tree branch piece where a grass piece is supposed to go, the person making an assemblage error works out all of the parts of a sentence beforehand but has difficulty reassembling them before offering them verbally to a listener.

Types of Assemblage Errors

There are three types of assemblage errors, says Aitchison in "A Glossary of Language and Mind." They are:

  • Anticipations—where the speaker inserts a letter or sound prematurely
  • Exchanges or transpositions—where the speaker unintentionally swaps a letter or sound
  • Perseverations (repetitions)—where the speaker accidentally repeats a sound

Knowing these three categories can help you pick out which type of assemblage error a speaker is making, which can help you understand their thinking and even their state of mind, Aitchison explains.

"For example, the large number of anticipations, compared with perseverations, indicates that humans are thinking ahead as they speak, and are able to erase the memory of what they have said quite fast. Assemblage errors contrast with selection errors, in which a wrong item has been chosen. Together, these form the two major subdivisions within slips of the tongue (speech errors). A similar distinction can be made within slips of the pen (writing errors), and slips of the hand (signing errors)."

Debate About Assemblage Errors

Not all linguists agree that assemblage errors fit neatly into these three categories. Indeed, determining whether a mistake is an assemblage error or something else entirely can be difficult. Aitchison explains the debate over the issue in another book, "Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon":

"For example, is conversation for 'conservation' a selection error, in which one similar-sounding word has been picked instead of another? Or an assemblage error, in which the [s] and [v] were reversed? Or what about the student who, describing her new boyfriend, said 'He's such a lovely huskuline man.' Was this a genuine blend, in which the similar-meaning words husky and masculine had been bundled together, when she meant to say only one? Or was it a 'telescopic' blend, in which two adjacent words had been telescoped together in a hurry, so that what she had really meant to say was 'husky AND masculine'?"

The notion that assemblage errors occur because a speaker is planning out an entire sentence or phrase before uttering a sound may be a suspect theory in itself, argue some linguists. Merrill F. Garrett, an expert on psycholinguistics and professor emeritus at Arizona State University, makes the point that many variables are at play when spoken errors are made in "Lexical Retrieval Process: Semantic Field Effects":

"[M]ovement errors have provided a basis for claims that sentence-planning processes proceed in distinct processing levels, and that lexical and segmental content are significantly dissociated from their phrasal environments in the computational processes that build sentence form. Put simply, the argument is that such assumptions can account for a variety of otherwise apparently unrelated constraints on error distribution."

Garrett notes that errors in speech may be due to issues outside of the neat categories proposed in the theory of assemblage errors. He and other linguistic experts such as Brian Butterworth, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, have argued that speech errors, in general, cannot be neatly segmented into simple categories and might even be something else entirely.


  • Aitchison, Jean. A Glossary of Language and Mind. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Jean Aitchison, Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon, 4th ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  • Allstetter, William D. Speech and Hearing. Chelsea House, 1991.
  • Garrett, Merrill F. "Lexical Retrieval Process: Semantic Field Effects." Frames, Fields, and Contrasts: New Essays in Semantic and Lexical Organization, ed. by Adrienne Lehrer and Eva Feder Kittay. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992.
  • Butterworth, Brian. “Speech Errors: Old Data in Search of New Theories.” De Gruyter, Walter De Gruyter, Berlin / New York, 1 Jan. 1981.
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Assemblage Errors in English?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-assemblage-error-1689006. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 14). What Are Assemblage Errors in English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-assemblage-error-1689006 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Assemblage Errors in English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-assemblage-error-1689006 (accessed June 19, 2021).