Barry Pomeroy Main Page
Back to main page Me on my boat, the Whimsey

mandrake root photo
Buy the Ebook
Buy the Paperback
Table of Contents
Read the Introduction
Google Plus View Barry Pomeroy's LinkedIn profile
The Slippery Signifier: Accidental Grammar and Inadvertent Mistakes


Signification’s Many Eros [Sic]

As the chapter heading above, as well as the title of this book suggest, I am as drawn to language’s endlessly playful nature as I am linguistic mistakes or errors in signification. The wish to regularize grammar and punctuation, and to install rules about textual structure and language register, is an attempt to rein in language’s natural inclination to evade what we want to say. Instead of constraining language, we are treated to a jeering from the horizon of what is possible. Each utterance implicitly contains its converse, as well as a thousand other possibilities, and that frustrates any who will force upon language the accuracy of mathematics, and delights those who revel in alternative meanings, fresh ideas, and the multitudinous possibilities of lateral thinking.

Communication has likely always been a proposition fraught with misunderstandings and ignorance. Only fistfuls of stone tools remain to report on our early development, so we can merely guess how we might have transmitted cultural knowledge. We must have communicated in some fashion, even if it were limited to gesture, but other than suggestive clues such as the existence of trade routes, we cannot confirm a particular date in our early development when we began to speak. Somehow, we told others about making rope—if we rely on the mute implications of a thirty thousand year old fragment of twisted fibre[1]—and twenty-five thousand years ago we were apparently explaining how to make pottery.[2] Later generations added more elaborate innovations to the craft and that likely demanded even greater linguistic sophistication.

Studies of language diversity have led some to claim that language use is at least two hundred thousand years old,[3] and certainly there are ways other than the spoken word to transmit cultural information.[4] Early human development might well be crowded with people who lived their entire lives communicating solely by gesture and roughly drawn shapes on the cave floor. Doubtless they were also plagued by the same failures of communication and difficulty of expression that torment us now on the other side of the millennia.

When writing began, five thousand years ago in Sumer, we mainly used it to keep records.[5] Once the food in the granaries was counted, and the king had collected his taxes, the scribes turned to literary pursuits. They began to transcribe the stories that we’d been telling each other over cooking fires for tens of thousands of years, and supplemented that with their thoughts and guesses about the world around them. Although they were likely unaware of the possibility, such transcriptions would forever change the nature of information delivery.

The suggestion that the written utterance was inalterable inevitably held it to a higher standard than the spoken text. If a detail in a campfire story went astray, then good natured ridicule might be the worst one might expect,[6] but accuracy of transcription when counting crops became crucial in the written text. This predilection continued into the writing of stories. The Christian bible tells us that “In the beginning was the word,” and although the bible is problematized by translation and editing, many Christians today still remain committed to the exact text of their particular translation and transliteration. As stories were laboriously transcribed by monks working by candlelight, the accuracy of their copy became an important way to discern the text’s validity.

Those notions persist. Shakespearean scholars torment themselves and others over which version is authoritative[7] and when his plays are performed directors are typically so precious about the exact wording that they rarely make changes to the lines.[8] Not surprisingly, some of the first books to be printed in the post-Gutenberg era were grammar guides. They were meant to regularize the riot of spellings and structures that had always been in the language but which became more vexing as they crept into the written text.

These valiant attempts, however well-intentioned, are ultimately doomed. Even ignoring the very real human tendency to be sloppy, language’s natural slipperiness combines with the fact that knowledge of grammatical rules is increasingly scarce on the ground. As well, the delight that many take in affronting others with the written word, and artistic manipulation of grammar and diction, labours alongside those for whom clarity of expression is merely arcane rules enforced by nerds who cannot get on with the business of living and expressing.

Tom Waits tells us that “Words are like music. Before you understand what they are they already have some value to them,”[9] and I would argue that their value only increases the more we try to grapple with them.

For example, on a class paper my student claimed that “Poverty is defined as the state of being extremely poor.” With many online dictionaries engaging in exactly this type of tautology in their definitions, I wasn’t sure how to explain to them that their sentence delivered no more information than the word poor could accomplish on its own. In any event, that is not strictly true. Their sentence becomes much more engaging if we look beyond their intent.

Some vague entity is doing the defining, we are told. Behind the subject—the poverty which is being defined—hovers another subject. That person doing the defining is nearly invisible in the sentence, even though the sentence gives them complete control over how poverty is constructed. As well, my student’s use of an intensifier suggests that being normally poor is not sufficient if one wants to be defined as living in a state of poverty. They need to be “extremely poor” in order to fit the definition. Because it is merely a state of being, as the sentence optimistically suggests, it need not last. The state of being extremely poor could easily shift, the sentence implies, and then the one who has been identified as poor might escape the grasp of such an authoritative sounding vague definition.

In this study, I am interested in pursuing such possibilities in language use. Although grammar, diction, and syntax are necessary fellow travellers on the way through this study, the main journey is about the tendency of language to wriggle from our grip. With the internet exacerbating language’s natural inclination to chaos, the field has become even more rewarding. A single evocative statement can have enough online resonance to ring across the globe as it is endlessly repeated and commented upon.

When George W. Bush said, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”[10] he likely never thought he’d end up an internet meme or a warning to students to heed subject verb agreement. Likewise, scurrilous YouTube and Facebook conflicts expose the ignorance and willful lack of interest in the language of those being confronted. With sentences as slippery as an eel on a mud flat, the online community deforms the meaning of words with the blunt hammer of ignorance, scatters punctuation like grass seed, and then defends their mercurial creation even while it squirms into a crippled coherence.

Delightfully, when people online are accused of errors which complicate their message, their emotional response demands that they reply with misdirected prose and confusing vitriol:

My English would win over a word contest w you on Any given day. Your assuming I’m illiterate n stupid You are what you say I am. My spell check n qwerty are in need of repair .much the way your brain is. Your rude your not adhering to the guidelines instructed. Doing edso to me evidence you would create drama in this family. Unacceptable.

The writer above suggests that they are the equal of their online combatant, that their computer is faulty, and that those they address do not follow the grammatical and social rules of human interaction. Perhaps because we have long dealt with similar utterances, we are good at parsing such sentences. We read them in a doubled fashion. We interpret both what is said—in all of its incoherent rawness—and what we presume was meant.

That doubled reading allows us to mix their intentions with their inadvertent resultant meanings until we have a stew of possibilities which is not suggested by either their reactive nature or lack of control over language. The irony of their claim is lost on few, but the idea that levels of illiteracy are decided by a “word contest,” that personal attacks amount to a proof of competence, and that some higher digital authority is in control of silly online banter, expose more about the writer than they might wish. Finally, the peculiar intimacy with which they address the offending party—inviting them into a family relationship—dislocates and personalizes the narrative even as their argument culminates with a moral condemnation.

If this word salad were more coherent, it would waste several paragraphs delivering as much information and as many suggestive statements. The reader has a sense of the writer’s personality, ability, and educational background, even as he or she is flexing and stretching the words that have erupted onto the page.

Another example which should be even more difficult to parse is a high school student interacting with their friends. They likely did not realize that by virtue of posting their statements that they had reached a wider audience, but I was struck by the clarity of their sentences despite the irregularity of their prose. They chose to manipulate some of the spelling and diction in accordance to what was fashionable at the time, and their grammar is a result of impatience and inability, but their pastiche of incoherence is still an understandable cultural snapshot from a particular time in the teenage world. Despite rebelliously flouting their teacher’s traditions, their message still hovers behind the words. Even in the face of a wish to obfuscate and posture, the reader’s ability to interpret meaning is resilient:

i hav NO idea hoo took this pic on my camera.. it waz either taken by.. matt. or nick.. cuz gabrielz shoez R next 2 my head.. but that waz tha day i hella passed out N bardsley let me sleep tha hole period under a tree hahaha!!

therez not much i kan put up here cuz.. itz jus gay 2 say wussup in public.. but hope everything werx out 4 tha better.. u better visit u punk!! mary N sarin.. no werdz kan xplain how grateful I am 2 bump in2 u guyz @ skool outta nowhere.. i love tha way we’ve never got in ONE fite this hole entire year.. we laff about everything N tern everything in2 a joke.. u guyz showed me that tha werdz "true" and "frenz" kan belong in 1 sentence.. i no i’ll c u over the summer eventually.. N next year.. but i jus wanted 2 let u 2 no i love u so much N no matter wut happenz we’ll alwayz b pinky.. mousy.. & "O" neardz fo life 4 all u ppl hoo hav fan signz.. none of those post-it-notez kan ever kompare 2 this sign

Rather inadvertently, this teen is doing much more than communicating with their friends. Many of the words are spelled phonetically, their sentences are the barest of meaning-making units, and a contemporaneous text-speech has contaminated much of their diction. Their prose does more than evoke a particular time and place, however, it also shows how well written English retains its form and meaning regardless of deliberate and ostentatious flexing.

Of course this type of playfulness is not always deliberate, and not always limited to untutored mistakes. In a page encouraging tourists to visit an island near Vancouver, the reader is told that “Hornby Island is home to a tightly knit community of about nine hundred residents and a well kept secret to thousands of visitors.”[11] The secret becomes much less well kept when the sentence brags that thousands of people have visited, but there is no sense that the writer was either being deliberately grammatically combative—like the high school student above—witty in a self-depreciating fashion, or grammatically-challenged—such as the person who commented on the Facebook page. Instead, the otherwise coherent nature of the Hornby Island sentence draws attention to how it undermines its own meaning.

Just so no one will think these more comical errors are associated with a lack of education, when I was visiting my friend in Halifax, a colleague sent me a long rambling commentary on one of my courses. My friend laughed when I read the email and I warned him that my colleague was capable of more extreme feats of incoherence. To satisfy his curiosity, I asked my colleague to be more explicit. I knew once they were faced with the task of defining their thought, they would mash their answer together in a fashion that would delight my friend. My colleague has a PhD, but the sentences which represent their attempt to articulate their thoughts give no indication that the degree had honed their ability to communicate: 

I’m not sure I can be more explicit.  My first concern is that a professor in an English department should be representing himself or herself as an expert in decoding texts, not in social issues, albeit in your course you will be focusing on texts about social issues.  My other concern is that I would understand any University course to allow for the possibility of students taking very different positions or holding very different opinions about a range of issues, so that it should be made clear that, while you focus on texts that have been identified as articulating a wish for social change, students might, for example, not see the texts as doing this effectively, or might see them as not attempting such an expression at all and rather concerned with something very different, or they might argue that the wish being expressed not being a worthwhile wish, etc. 

The import of their argument is clear enough. They suggest that an English course should not focus on social issues. That is a view commonly held by older professors who were trained in the New Critic way of divorcing texts from their social surround. The second part of the paragraph is a very long sentence which ends rather abruptly. In that, they suggest that students might view texts differently, and they rather inadvertently point to the field of English study as occupied with how effectively texts articulate their argument—which is the purpose of such cultural studies approaches—but the entire sentence soon falls over the cliff of etcetera that it is rapidly running toward.

Compounding clause after clause, they have lost track of their sentence’s original purpose. Their rambling incoherence, once carefully parsed, blandly suggests that students interpret texts differently. Somehow that is meant to be a caution, although the trite nature of such advice undermines the writer’s attempt to grandstand, and the incoherence of the sentence, given that it is advice about clarity in the interpretation of texts, becomes laughable.

I cite these examples to show the endless variety of mistakes and missteps, and also to give an idea of the types of work I analyze in this study. PhD or high school dropout, conspiracy theorist or student writing a paper, no one is immune to the word’s allergic response to definitive meaning. I think that a more involved way of thinking about the slipperiness of signification is much more useful than showboating incoherence and inability as mere mistakes.

Mistakes are not exactly errors; they are a chance to stretch the possibilities of what the written word can accomplish. When my friend Johann wanted to express the repulsiveness of the cockroach which ran over his face while he was sleeping, he said, “it was heavy, like a dog.” Wishing to convey the repellent sensation and limited by his understanding of English, he leapt for an expression that represented his revulsion much better than if he described it more accurately.

The high school student above who stretched the language of their missive both conveyed their coolness, delivered a message to their peers, and evoked a particular time. My colleague with the PhD, perhaps inadvertently, exposed their mental state in their tangle of phrasing and incoherence, and Johann cobbled together his few nouns and verbs into an evocative description.

Writing is a difficult craft, but in this book I am more interested in exploring the missteps and potential interpretations of the found text as it chivies the words to explore their different meanings. Even with the best of intentions, and the utmost care devoted to the task, words diverge in meaning in other cultural backgrounds and sentences escape from our attempt to corral them into coherence and capture them as meaning-making units. Even when the intentions and skill level are suspect and lacking, the result can be a kind of comedy of errors as well as a linguistic plenitude,[12] a delightful jouissance[13] of meaning.

[1] Kvavadze, Eliso, et al. “30,000-year-old wild flax fibers.” Science 325.5946 (2009): 1359.

[2] Vandiver, P.B., Soffer, O., Klima, B., and Svoboda, J., “The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia.” Science, Vol 246. (November 1989): 1002-1008.

[3] Knight, Chris and Michael Studdert-Kennedy, James Hurford The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[4] Armstrong, David F. “The Gestural Theory of Language Origins.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2008., pp. 289-314.

[5] Hayes, John L. A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts. Malibu, California: Undena Publications, 1990.

[6] The Australian Aborigine songline tradition ensured that the stories were accurate by employing a system of intergenerational fact checking. As the stories were / are told, three generations are expressly attentive for errors. They confirm that the story being told is the one that had been passed down, and thus ensure that the stories keep their information intact. Patrick Nunn and Nicholas Reid argue that the story cycles retained explicit information about the same postglacial sea level rise that was later confirmed by the empirical corroboration of marine geographers (Patrick D. Nunn, Nicholas J. Reid. “Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago” Australian Geographer. 2015.)

[7] Ioppolo, Grace. Revising Shakespeare. Harvard University Press, 1991.

[8] Worthen, William B. Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[9] Interview with Conan O’Brien, 2007.

[10] Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000.


[12] See Ruti, Mari. "The fall of fantasies: A Lacanian reading of lack." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 56.2 (2008): 483-508.

[13] The French word, given its indissoluble relationship to all the rest of Lacan’s teaching, including his mathemes or his logical and topological formulae, is difficult to translate into English. Lacan himself was aware of the problem and favoured a combination of "enjoyment" and "lust" (Braunstein, Néstor A. “Desire and jouissance in the teachings of Lacan.” in Jean-Michel Rabate Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge UP, 2003). See also Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960. Vol. 7. WW Norton, 1988.

Contact Barry Pomeroy