Erratology

As against . . .

Hamartiology

[hamartio- from Gk. αμαρτια, hamartia,  “missing the mark,” i.e. “fate, mistake/accident, failure/flaw, sin/guilt” + -logy λογια, logia, “study of, writing/discourse about”]

Hamartia is the word usually translated in the Bible as “sin,” and in Aristotle’s Poetics as “tragic flaw.”

Hamartiology is the study of sin (how sin originated, how it affects humanity, and what it will result in after death)—or, more broadly and less morally, the study of mistakes, accidents, failures, or flaws, fatal or not.

fatal_error_

I prefer . . .

Erratology

[This term is a linguistic blend: errato- from L. erratum, pp. of errare “to wander, err” + -logy from Gk λογια, logia “study of, writing/discourse about.”]

Pavel/Pesakh Rafaelovich Amnuel (b.1944), an Azerbaijani émigré to Israel, and astrophysicist and sci-fi novelist, used the term in 1975 for a “science [of] mistakes” (invented by Igor Astahov, the hero of his short story “Wanderer” and novel “Steepness”).

It has more recently been adopted in translation studies in Russia [in Russian].

In “Grammar ABC,” I use the term to mean the study or discourse of error (“mistakes”):

  1. we study errors in writing (this is the deconstructive study of mistakes: a privative erratology) . . .
  2. . . . to better make them (this is the constructive discourse of mistakes: a creative erratology).

This is why I teach grammar using sentence combination and sentence/paragraph rewriting exercises. I’m convinced of the importance of grammar, of syntax as style, for example, but unconvinced that teaching grammar as such improves students’ writing—except perhaps in microlessons (see Joseph Williams, “The Phenomenology of Error“: error is in the head). Students are therefore given licence to make mistakes and learn rules in and through their breaking. (This is against the kind of obsession with error-spotting that verges on erratomania.)

Essentially, this is a close-up version of the idea that in writing studies we learn the rules to break—or, rather, bend—them, a practice taken to the nth degree by Winston Weathers in his deformative grammar, “Grammar B” (see Peter Elbow’s essay, “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art“).

Erratology uses as a heuristic the principle that rules exist to be broken/that exceptions disprove the rule (against Cicero’s exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis in his defence of Balbo [56BCE]); through erratology you can learn by making mistakes, rather than just from your mistakes (it is procedural trial and error).

This fits with what Marcia Ribble in “Redefining Basic Writing: An Image Shift From Error to Rhizome” describes as the rhizomatic character of language per se—and thus writing, or, more carefully, “rhizome as a metaphor for writing” [BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal 3.1 (2001)]:

The first thing we should teach our students is the inherent instability of language. . . Because error is such a normal part of the process of sending and receiving messages, no one who has error creep into their message can possibly be considered abnormal or inferior.

She continues:

Using the rhizome as a metaphor for writing can at least reassure writers that it is not them, but writing itself which is causing the hardships encountered.

But erratology also implies errant procedures, i.e. writing practices—often collaborative—that elaborate a generative process, like bibliomancy (divination by book [a.k.a. stichomancy, libromancy], the ancient method having used Virgil’s Aeneid [the sortes Virgilianae]; I use the course reader), or the Surrealists’ exquisite corpse (a collaborative, randomised assemblage of words or images).

Cadavre exquis [Exquisite Corpse]

We also encourage students to make (and teach) their own fumblerules to break (and learn) the disabling rules of the institution. By thus risking the authority they are lent by the institution, they exercise their sovereign right to write.

And the same goes for writing teachers: they too must risk mistakes—and thus their authority . . .

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