March 14, 2005

Two types of "errors" (again) and it's all "grammar" (again)

Over on the eggcorn database site, I've added a comment on the lose-to-loose entry, which Chris Waigl has annotated with:

This entry has been assigned to the "questionable" category pending further discussion: [it] looks like a simple misspelling to me.

I agreed with Chris (and MWDEU), but the other comments mostly maintain that this can't be a spelling error -- several point out, in support of this claim, that it is very frequent -- and one (from Spindoc) even declares it to be "one of the more common and genuine grammatical errors in the language". I see now that I have once again failed to appreciate that ordinary people just don't distinguish two types of "errors" (Spindoc puts them together in the judgment: "Not a misspelling/typo") and also lump everything that's regulated in language under the heading of "grammar". Let me try to sort this stuff out one more time.

People who study errors in language make a systematic distinction between inadvertent errors -- in the case at hand, slips of the pen or typos -- and another type of mistake, which arises from imperfect command of the conventions at work in the larger community of language users -- in the case at hand, "spelling errors" in the sense of errors involving the conventions of spelling. Writing or typing "teh" for "the" is an inadvertent error, and a very common one. Writing or typing "loose" for the present tense or base form /luz/ of the verb whose past tense is spelled "lost" is, I maintain, almost always something else; people who spell this way, and there are a great many of them, almost always intend that spelling (while those who spell "teh" surely do not intend that spelling).

Now, spelling /luz/ as "loose" is a very likely and natural error to make: "lose" is one of only two English words, and the only verb, with /uz/ spelled "ose" (the spelling of possessive "whose" is equally surprising); the very common verb "choose" has /uz/ spelled "oose"; and anyway there's another very common word "loose" already hanging around. So plenty of people, having learned that /luz/ has a "-se" spelling with an "o" in it (rather than a "u"; "luse" would have been the most likely candidate spelling), opted for the reasonable (though incorrect) "oo" spelling. Unfortunately, the conventional spelling, "lose", is even odder than they realized.

Once you have a lot of people spelling /luz/ as "loose", they can serve as models for other people, so the spelling error will tend to maintain itself and spread. After all, this spelling makes sense; if you can't have "luse", "loose" is the next best thing.

Unless it's done very carefully, instruction might actually make things worse. A kid who learns that there's something odd about the way /luz/ is spelled, and that it has something to do with /lus/, and that lots of people spell it wrong, might simply conclude that the oddity is that these words are homographs, like the present and past tense verb forms spelled "read", and that it's the spelling "lose" that's wrong. That would reinforce "loose" as the spelling for /luz/. Another possible baleful effect of instruction is that the spelling of /lus/ could be cast into doubt; see below.

In passing, I note (once again) that very different kinds of conventions and knowledge are involved in spelling vs. pronunciation, syntax, morphology, vocabulary, and so on (not to mention discourse organization, linguistic politeness, and a variety of other skills of language use). Using "grammar" as a cover term for all this stuff merely sows confusion and misunderstanding.

Some of the comments on lose-to-loose on the eggcorn site suggest that there is confusion in both directions (though I have not seen examples of this), and even that pronunciations are affected (though I have not heard this). Both possibilities are alluded to in a comment from Patricia:

I agree this is not simply a spelling error or typo. "Lose" should not be pronounced in the same way as "Loose" or vice versa, but often is. As an English teacher in the public schools for 25 years, I have marked and remarked, discussed and rediscussed this error in both group settings and one-on-one. My limited successes have been the result of one-on-one, dogged persistence in correcting pronunciation and in insisting on visualizing the difference in the one "o" and the "double o."

I'm inclined to think that Patricia is showing a deep confusion of pronunciation and spelling here, and that her report is really just about more instances of the spelling "loose" for /luz/. But it would be possible for spelling reversal -- "lose" for /lus/ -- to take place, if the spelling of /lus/ (which is not very odd, although you do have to learn to select between "oose" and "uce" for /us/) has been cast into doubt. It's hard to see how you could get the pronunciation of a verb spelled "lose" as /lus/, but I can see how you could end up with a verb with the meaning of "lose" but pronounced /lus/; it would be spelled "loose", of course. This is one thing that could happen from students reading things like "You'll loose your wallet" in the writing of others who are imperfect spellers; after all, "loose" is pronounced /lus/, right? Such a student would have two verbs denoting accidental dispossession -- /luz/, learned from speech, and /lus/, learned from writing. You know, there are people who think that there are two different cities in southern California -- one with a name pronounced like La Hoya and learned from speech, and one with the name La Jolla, pronounced just like it's spelled (in English), learned from writing.

It's worth noting, once again, that very common spelling errors are always the consequence of imperfections in the conventions of spelling. People seek out system in these matters, and resist isolated peculiarities in favor of spellings that play by the general rules.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 14, 2005 09:52 PM