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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Q&A: Proofreader Wonders About Words That Switch Parts of Speech



I have a question regarding the distinction, if there is one, between “grammatical error” and “grammar error.” I notice that both seem to be in common use, but it seems to me that the first one could be construed as an error that is grammatical, is in a mistaken assertion that is syntactically correct. The second instance, however, gives us the awkward problem of a noun used as an adjective.

Your thoughts?

I own and have a vested interest in finding the best choice in the matter.


ANSWER: I couldn't find a single reference that would say one is right and/or wrong in any given instance. As you noted (and many might argue) "grammar" is the noun, "grammatical" the adjective. But in doing a search I saw that grammar sites were about evenly split on whether they use the term "grammatical terms" or "grammar terms." That's one of the difficulties (and blessings) of English. Words can and do float from one part of speech to another and there is no help for it. There is a grammar (or grammatical) term for that floating process but I try to keep this column in layman terms as much as I can. (-:

Those interested in elegant and precise English are sure to see the difference.Still, it wouldn't exactly be a "grammar error" if you chose the wrong form of "grammar" for either meaning. That's because, however much those of us who are "Grammar Snobs," as my grammar-guru friend June Casagrande (author of "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies"), would like to see our meanings drawn clearly and concisely, usage dictates (eventually) what is right and what is wrong. And I'm pretty sure that's the side of the fence June would come down on, too. That is, neither side. Ha!

So, I'm afraid, the distinction has evaded the general reader. But good for you for fighting the good fight. (-: Go ahead and proof for the more exact meaning but don't be surprised if your client doesn't quite see what you are trying to do. Or care.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits and consults on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success on Amazon. Learn more about her other authors' aids at

1 comment:

June Casagrande said...

People tend to assume that these things are either/or situations. A lot of people think that, with grammar and usage, if one choice is right, all alternatives must me wrong.

Not so. English is very flexible. Yes, there is a subtle distinction between "grammar error" and "grammatical error" -- but it's not found in rules. It's found in the ear and mind.

"Grammar error" to me, seems to emphasize grammar whereas "grammatical error" seems to emphasize "error" (by demoting the grammar issue to that of mere modifier).

But that's just my opion. Others' are just as valid, which is why both forms are popular.

-- June Casagrande, Author, "Mortal Syntax" & "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies"

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