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Wednesday 15 June 2016

“Grammar Mistake” or “Grammatical Mistake”: Which Expression Is Correct?

I  asked a version of this question on Quora, naively and mistakenly assuming that I would launch a groundswell  of support to stop people from using the expression “grammatical mistake.”  It seemed pretty obvious to me that something was either “grammatical” or a “mistake”; it couldn’t be both.  The word “grammar” is used as a noun modifier (actually every noun in the language can be used as a modifier), which we use for “grammar book,” "grammar teacher,” "grammar lesson,” so clearly the correct expression must be “grammar mistake.”  Imagine my surprise with the unanimous responses that there is nothing wrong with “grammatical mistake.”




I must admit that I was trying to be a bit too cute in how I formulated the Quora question:  “Isn’t the expression ‘grammatical mistake’ a grammar mistake?”  As a number of my respondents pointed out,   “grammatical mistake” isn’t a grammar mistake because it combines an adjective and a noun.  That’s how grammar works.  The expression may be semantic nonsense but that doesn’t mean it is an error in terms of grammar.

In truth, none of my correspondents would join with me in calling the expression nonsense, and would only go so far as to say that it might be taken as an oxymoron.  As Billy Kerr, patiently and clearly explained:

“‘grammatical’ has two distinct meanings.
Grammatical is an adjective: 1. relating to grammar. 2. well formed; in accordance with the rules of the grammar of a language
Mistake is a noun.
The adjective (in sense 1 - see above) modifies the noun. It’s perfectly grammatical (in sense 2) for an adjective to modify a noun, since that is the purpose of adjectives.
If sense 1 did not exist, it would not be ungrammatical, it would just be an oxymoron.”
Of course, "sense 1" does exist, so I can’t even save face by claiming that the expression is an oxymoron.  Could I claim it was ambiguous, a bit confusing?  Maybe, but not really.  When literate, native speakers of English unanimously claim that something is correct English, then it is correct English.  That’s how language works.
Still I was disturbed. Was it just that I didn’t like being wrong, especially about the English language?  Probably.  Why did I think “grammatical mistake” was a mistake?  Searching online I discovered this answer:
"The expression 'grammatical error' sounds, and is, in a sense, paradoxical, for the reason that a form can not 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.'"(J. T. Baker, Correct English, Mar. 1, 1901)
from http://grammar.about.com/od/fh/g/grammaticalerrorterm.htm
This discovery wasn’t all that reassuring since I found it on a web page called “grammatical errors” and it meant I was about 115 years out of date, and even Baker wasn’t willing to call “grammatical error” a mistake, just an expression to be avoided.  To add to my misgivings Baker’s example of “musical discord” was an expression I could imagine myself using.  Then there was my Quora correspondent  Bernard Glassman who acutely observed that the problem I was alleging would also have to apply to “hypothetical question” and “logical fallacy.”  Ouch.  I had never complained about “logical fallacy” but the expression suffered the same contradiction as “grammatical mistake.”

Reading (in fact, misreading) Edward Anderson, a third Quora respondent, I suddenly considered another possible meaning of “grammatical error.”  Could it mean that grammar was wrong?  Not anyone’s individual use of grammar was wrong, but that the rules of grammar themselves were wrong at some other level—in terms of semantics or logic or efficiency or clarity.

I have certainly sympathized with students who found it plainly stupid that “my brother is bigger than me” is ungrammatical and “he is bigger than I” is grammatically correct.  Traditional prescriptive grammar has created some fatuous notions like “split infinitives” and not ending a sentence with a preposition (on the grounds that you can’t do those things in Latin).  The most recent grammar controversy even has a name, the oxymoronic “singular their.”  Prescriptive grammar (pre-controversy) dictated that “Every student handed in his assignment on time” was correct grammar even if every student in the class was a woman.   This might be an example of a “grammatical mistake” but, of course, it’s not what people mean when they use this expression.

I haven't let go.  I need to pursue this conspiracy we call grammar and standard English further and deeper and wider.


In the interests of full disclosure, here are the responses of my Quora correspondents:


Billy Kerr, Native English speaker, from the UK.
127 Views

No, because “grammatical has two distinct meanings.
Grammatical is an adjective: 1. relating to grammar. 2. well formed; in accordance with the rules of the grammar of a language
Mistake is a noun.
The adjective (in sense 1 - see above) modifies the noun. It’s perfectly grammatical (in sense 2) for an adjective to modify a noun, since that is the purpose of adjectives.
If sense 1 did not exist, it would not be ungrammatical, it would just be an oxymoron.”

Bernard Glassman, Once a teacher of English, always, and annoyingly, a teacher of English.
103 Views

If "grammatical mistake" is itself an error in grammar, is calling something a "hypothetical question" equally erroneous, since it is, in fact, a question? What, then, is a logical fallacy? (This is getting to be way too much fun, but I would love to hear some other examples of those two, contradictory, meanings of “-ical.”)

Selena York, Business, Marketing, Finance, Insurance, Advertising, Consulting, Management,
8 Views

I always thought it was “grammatical error”. Either, or -

Kimberly Masterson, Editor, proofreader, writer in the United States
15 Views

Thanks for the A2A. Grammatical mistake is acceptable. My personal opinion is that grammatical error sounds better. Both are grammatically correct.

Edward Anderson, 7 years of Grammar School
29 Views

Interestingly, however, even if we stick by your chosen definition of #2, which is by far not the most commonly used one, the term “grammatical mistake” is still not a mistake in grammar. It is a syntactically well-formed phrase consisting of a noun and an adjective that modifies it. It is, at best, an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence,” or “president trump.”
In fact, there are entire classes of what you refer to grammatical mistakes, where the grammar is unassailable, yet still there is a mistake. We see them far more often in computer programs than in natural language. There’s the banana problem, where you run off the end of an array (so called as an homage to the grade-school child saying, “I know how to spell banana, but I don’t know when to stop.”) Then there’s the off-by-one error, where you store information in an array as if it’s zero-based, but retrieve it as if it’s one-based. The more formal term for these is not “grammatical error,” however; it’s semantic error.
You see, in English, “grammatical error” in common usage does not mean an error that is grammatical. It means an error in the grammar. And semantic error does not mean an error that is semantically well-formed; it means an error of semantics.

Billy Kerr 
Actually sense 1 existed first. “grammatical (adj.) 1520s, of or pertaining to grammar," from Middle French grammatical and directly from Late Latin grammaticalis "of a scholar," from grammaticus "pertaining to grammar".
So etymologically speaking, you have the timeline backwards.

Malathy GarewalNever learnt the grammar, but am a voracious reader and love the language.
95 Views • Malathy has 30+ answers in Grammar



Thanks for the A2A.
No, I do not think so.
I do understand the reason for the question, but I think here ‘grammatical’ is used as a qualifier for the kind of mistake made. Though I personally would prefer to say that something is grammatically wrong.
As for your reasoning of ‘grammatical’ versus ‘ungrammatical error’, think of substituting ‘typographical’ or ‘spelling’. While I can say something is a ‘typographical error and not a spelling mistake’, it would not be right to say ‘untypographical’. Hope that makes sense.

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