Erratology and the Ill-Logic of the Seismotic University

Garden of Forking Paths

A new essay by Stephen Turner and myself, “Erratology and the Ill-Logic of the Seismotic University”:

With the tertiary education mantra of creativity, critical thinking and innovation in mind, we consider the critical-creativity of error. Taking the university to model social orthography, or “correct writing,” according to the norms of disciplines, we consider the role of error in the classroom. Error questions the norms governing norms and the instability of disciplinary grounds; it involves a mis-taking, or taking another way. By tracing the origin of error, we are able to reconstruct the social world in terms of which it is conceivable for a mistake of any kind to have been made. The university, we find, withholds worlds which are not new but are sources of creativity, and constitutes a pluriversity or poly-versity.

In short, we learn by making mistakes.

Download here (subscription required).

Breaking the Rules in Style: Winston Weathers’ Grammar B

In “Breaking the Rules in Style,” Tom Romano offers a summary of Winston Weather’s “grammar B,” which allows for “variegation, synchronicity, discontinuity, ambiguity, and the like” in writing (8). It involves the cultivation of “errors” like sentence fragments (“crots”), labyrinthine sentences and orthographic variations (I prefer neologisms) to create an alternate grammar of style.


  • Romano, Tom. “Breaking the Rules in Style.” The English Journal 77.8 (Dec. 1988): 58-62 (download);
  • my summary of Weather’s An Alternate Style: Options in Composition (Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1980) (download); and
  • Elbow, Peter, “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art.” Writing on the Edge (1997) (download).

See also

  • Bishop, Wendy (ed.), Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997) (one chapter is here for download), and
  • Schroeder, Christopher L., Helen Fox and Patricia Bizzell (eds.), ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses and the Academy (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann, 2002).

Weathers’ rationale to write “outside the box”:

What I have been taught to construct is: the well-made box. I have been taught to put “what I have to say” into a container that is always remarkably the same, that — in spite of varying decorations — keeps to a basically conventional form: a solid bottom, four upright sides, a fine-fitting lid. Indeed, I may be free to put “what I have to say” in the plain box or the ornate box, in the fragile box or the sturdy box. But always the box — squarish or rectangular. (1)

And I begin to wonder is there isn’t somewhere a round box or an oval box or a tubular box, some sort of container that will allow me to package “what I have to say” without trimming my “content” to fit into a particular compositional mode, that will actually encourage me to discover new things to say because of the very opportunity a newly-shaped container gives me (even though I can never escape containers — e.g., syntax — altogether), that will be more suitable perhaps to my own mental processes, and that will provide me with a greater rhetorical flexibility, allowing me to package what I have to say in more ways than one and thus reach more audiences than one. (2)

P.S. Don’t forget Gertrude Stein, “On Punctuation,” Lectures in America (1935; Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985) 214-22 (download via Kenneth Goldsmith) — because “[t]here are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not” (p. 214). Indeed.

And see my “Erratology (not hamartiology).”


As against . . .


[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.


I prefer . . .


[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 . . .


Paradoxology is

  1. “the use of paradoxes” in reasoning, in other words, speaking in paradoxes, or, as Gomperz defines it,
  2. “the study of what the ancients termed the ‘paradoxes of nature,’ i.e., of unusual and irregular phenomena” (Heinrich Gomperz, Philosophical Studies, ed. D. S. Robinson [Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1953] 74).

In “Postmodernism and ‘the Other Side’” (Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen [London: Routledge, 1996] 191), Dick Hebdige’s argument that Jean-François Lyotard “dissolv[es] dialectics into paradoxology, and language games” suggests that paradoxology is more than a rhetorical game (see The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [Manchester: MUP, 1984] 3-4).

As a word, it originates from Thomas Browne (1605-82) in his book Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquries into Very Many Received Tenets and Commonly Presumed Truths, a.k.a. Vulgar Errors (1646; online at Sir Thomas Browne: Pseudodoxia, or Vulgar Errors), a “scientific” enquiry in the Baconian spirit into what he saw as the common errors, fallacies and superstitions of his age.

(For the other side of Browne’s philosophical coin, see his wonderful hermetic phantasmagoria, The Garden of CYRUS [1658, in full The Garden of CYRUS, or, The Quincuncial-Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients; Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered; online at Penelope at the University of Chicago], a vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the Universe via the symbols of the number five, the quincunx, the lozenge, the figure X and the reticulated network.)

Browne’s three determinants of truth are as follows:

  1. the authority of past authors,
  2. the action of reason, and lastly,
  3. empirical experience.

Of course, he often talks, despite his skeptical wit and love of the mystic, as if he knows into which of the “two circles” of knowledge—truth and falsity—any fact falls.

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne [a sophisticated possum by the looks], detail from Lady Dorothy Browne (née Mileham); Sir Thomas Browne, attr. Joan Carlile (1641-50).

This dichotomy suggests a parallel with the Gates of Horn and Ivory from Homer’s Odyssey 19: 560-69 (see Virgil, Aeneid 6.893-98). There Penelope, having just recounted a dream that seems to signify that her husband Odysseus is about to return, expresses her belief that the dream is false. She says:

Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came. (Homer, The Odyssey II, The Loeb Classical Library [1919; Oxford: OUP, 1980] 269)


Browne, then (to read him more sketchily than he might intend), contends that we live according to truths that are more or less true according to the way in which they are determined.

And Homer renders in black and white the greyscale premise of Plato’s idealism that the world as we perceive it is but a waking sleep in which the dreams are more or less true. The image is a play upon the words κέρας, “horn,” and κραίνω, “fulfill”—thus, from the Gate of Horn issue true dreams (i.e. true appearances)—and upon ἐλέφας, “ivory,” and ἐλεφαίρομαι, “deceive”—thus, from the Gate of Ivory issue false dreams (i.e. false appearances).

“La vida es sueño”—and a more or less true lie.