Errors, Mistakes, & Rhetorical Choices

Teachers, rangin from elementary school thru higher education, is tasked wit preparin students to move on to the next level of education, an eventually the workforce. Students is prepared wit assignments an proficiency tests to assess they mastery of a skill–here, Writin.

One measure of student success be the number of mistakes an errors they make in they writin. Errors an mistakes is products of the dominant social construction, dubbed Standard American English (SAE)–yes, it as icky an loaded as it sounds. Thus, errors an mistakes is judged by a “standard” thas traditionally been accessible only to a select, privileged few.

This standard institutional practice harkens back to more explicitly racist days of the good ol boys club of British colonialism, an later the US. Black and other marginalized writers was (an still be) labeled different from the so called ‘standard’. Our protest for human rights and civil liberties — the ULTIMATE mistake an error.  But do we let that stop us? (Hell no, we won’t go!)

What had to change was the establishment. It had to make room for the ever-growin tapestry of the American identity. Still has to. Change take time. It starts wit individuals who bring awareness, advocacy, an action to systemic ills.  What if we was aware of a different way of approachin mistakes an errors in writin…?

Issa vibe (*inserts any recent Drake melody*).  

Les illuminate a different way of thinkin bout mistakes an errors, an offer a third choice for yo consideration.  

What are mistakes?

How we suppose to know what mistakes is, anyway? Keshavarz (2008) was like “…mistakes [in writin be] random deviations unrelated to any system” (as cited by UK Essays, 2013).  In other words, we kno at some level how writin as a system works (or kno how to perform writing), but make ‘mistakes’ because of stress, worry, procrastination, sleep exhaustion, an all the other “random deviations” in life that influence our writin.

What make errors different?

Keshavarz wen on an said, “Errors [is] rule governed, systematic in nature, internally principled [an] free from arbitrariness” (2008; as cited by UK Essays, 2013, para 3). He tellin us our writin errors come from our lack of ‘grammar knowledge,’ which we can’t correct cuz the knowledge ain’t there to begin wit.  Errors is only errors from the perspective of teachers, who gatekeep Standard American English (SAE)–a system embedded in institutions. Teachers judge students’ level of understandin based on the proportion of errors an mistakes in they writin.

Y’all puttin it together yet? The institutional positioning of SAE in the U.S. creates a dichotomy of standard (dominant) v. non-standard (non-dominant). This dichotomy be linked to institutional power, based in white-supremacist patriarchy; where all social an cultural values an norms ‘originate.’  

Yikes! that definition definitely doin some mad passive-aggressive signalin to some oppressive, imperialist…(SHUT YO MOUF!)

I’m only talkin bout linguistic colonialism (We can dig it!).

Rhetorical choice… wha!?!

What if errors an mistakes was validated as rhetorical choices? Accordin to Wyatt (2017), “Rhetoric [be] the art of testing ideas [wit] people who share our questions. It involves not merely the language we use but all the decisions we make [an] how to communicate effectively [wit] others” (para 2). However, the choice(s) we make bout how to communicate are identified, critiqued, interpreted, an accepted narrowly through Standard American English (SAE)–a vehicle of linguistic colonialism. Psst, SAE is code for the white, middle-class English of yester-year bein upheld. PERIOD.

The hegemony of higher education gives preference to SAE, be leavin “non-standard” voices clawin an fightin for ways to assimilate to this ‘standard’.  Our ability to assimilate to SAE, in effect, is measured by our ability to make as few mistakes an errors as possible. (Whatchu talmbout Willis?) While SAE been an attempt to preserve white middle-class English, it limits rhetorical choices of dohs who learned English from they respective context(s); these contexts intersect race, class, an other social constructions that limit marginalized, “non-standard” voices.

These definitions provide a basic understanding of errors, mistakes, an rhetorical choices. Try thinkin bout this in the context of the academic papers you wrote. Whatchu thinkin bout your own mistakes, errors, an rhetorical choice(s)? Have you been given the freedom to make ‘non-standard’ rhetorical choices?

Whas Standard American English (SAE) gotta do wit it?

Students’ identities intersect class an race, nationality, borders, oceans, an so on. These intersections is situationally revealed in colleges across the country. In classrooms where they’s a lot of writin. WRITIN… across disciplines an genres; we all strugglin in our own way to check our errors, mistakes, an ‘standard’ rhetorical choices.  

How we understand English depends on socio-economic indicators that make race an class significant barriers to usin SAE. Without explicit knowledge bout the ability to make rhetorical choices–in this instance, choices bout marginalized English dialects–students have had to rely on code-switchin.  

Young (2014) argues, “[Code-switchin], despite the well-intended goals of inclusion, is in practice the vestige of legalized segregation and an educational strategy that forces [us who don’t write middle class white good enough] to view [our] language-culture and identity as antithetical to the U.S. mainstream” (p.9; as cited by Krichevsky, 2015, p. 235). This BS gives errors an mistakes they power; it chokes the identity-bound rhetorical choices of students who may be disportionately impacted by they racial an/or class status — a metaphorical an culturally acceptable lynchin.

In exchange for code-switchin, the dream of a ‘deluxe apartment in the sky’–GOOD TIMES! The reality, tho, issa pipe dream… Code-switchin make errors an mistakes seem like there be an issue with the students’ voices an identities.

REALITY CHECK:  SAE ain’t meant for erybody…

An ain’t nobody got time fo dat!

Linguistic Stop an Frisk

The attention called to mistakes an errors in students’ writin be equal to “stop and frisk” or “how American are you?” checkpoints. The over-policin of errors an mistakes over more thoughtful consideration of non-standard rhetorical choice(s) parallels to Garcia’s (2017) experience with a border agent:

Tu papeles y donde vas?’ the agent asked. The questions were part of his strategy of ‘checking’ me, reminding me that the interpellation of my traceable history and palimpsest of my identity… made permissible the ‘checking’ of who I was and where I’m going” (p.31).

The power dynamics of the student-teacher relationship allows this “checkin” of students’ writin, remindin them when they fail to use enough SAE. Each student’s experience bleeds thru in they writin. The acceptance of non-standard rhetorical choices that appear as mistakes, errors, or both is cuz of our proximities to class…the middle class (of the past), racial hierarchies, an the power afforded (or not) by those varied intersections.

Sound like gatekeepin yet?

SAE, a second-hand emotion…

Now y’all woke to “THE MAN’s” attempt to whitewash our rhetorical choices thru “feedback” on our errors an mistakes. Now, I ain’t sayin y’all can write whateva y’all want doh.

There will be times when errors an mistakes ain’t intentional.

As such, one of the writer’s rhetorical choices will be to get some of dohs mistakes an errors together.  The key here is agency: the writer get to decide what is mistakes an errors. Then, feedback can be focused on the effectiveness of the rhetorical choices, exercised thru the student’s authentic voice.

Mistakes are sooo much easier to fix.  All you gotta do is give yo self a little time (…like a day or three before paper is due).

Read your draft ALOUD.

Remember? Keshavarz (2008) was like, “Mistakes [is] due to non-linguistic factors such as fatigue, strong feelings, memory limitations, and lack of concentration [an] so on” (as cited by UK Essays, 2013, para 3). There’s research out there bout seein an readin aloud helpin the brain catch mistakes …or somethin like that (look that up on your own time while you procrastinatin or somethin).  

The point is you, a friend, or an uber skilled writing consultant from the UB Writing Center* (with an appointment, please an thanks) should read your paper. Writers can usually resolve mistakes easily if brought to they attention. READ ALOUD.

*Small print: Please be advised writing consultants’ primary concerns are not just your mistakes… or errors for that matter; writing consultations are discussion-based and collaborative, and they can occur at any stage of the writing process.

Errors, on the other hand, may require some work.  They can be either global or local. Burt (1975) cited by Park (2010) was like:

“Global errors …hinder communication [an] affect overall organization of the sentence such as wrong word order, missing, wrong or misplaced sentence connectors[,while] local errors do not usually hinder communication and affect single elements in a sentence such as error in noun and verb inflections, articles, and auxiliaries” (UK Essays, 2013, para 7).

As long as we remember “writing is a process,” there will always be room to practice resolving both global an local errors. We won’t catch all our errors all the time. Errors be tricky like that. Hooks (2011) be sayin, “There is much evidence [substantiatin] the reality that race [an] class identity creates difference in the quality of…[writin…] that take precedence over the common experience that marginalized groups share–differences which are rarely transcended” (p. 62; as cited by Brandhi, 2011, p. 43).

How an where you learn English will determine the errors an mistakes made. Les not forget this whole idea of errors an mistakes feeds into a bigger institutional system, guarded by institutional gatekeepers wit a vested interest in keepin SAE “standard.”

Hopefully y’all gotta writing center at your college that is pushing for institutional change to embrace ALL our errors an mistakes, making room for more ‘non-standard’ rhetorical choices.

**More small print: What you read as either errors or mistakes in this post are, in fact, thoughtfully considered rhetorical choices.


Brandhi, M. (2011). Radicalizing feminist theory with Marx and Buddha.  Dialogue 54(1) pp. 42-49.

Essays, UK. (November 2013). The Errors Vs Mistakes English Language Essay.

Garcia, Romeo. (2017). “Unmaking Gringo Centers.” The Writing Center Journal. 36.1 pp. 29-60.

Krichevsky, J. (2015). Review of the book Other People’s English: code-meshing, code-switching, and African American literacy, by V.A. Young. Composition Studies 43(2) p. 234-237.

Wyatt, C.S. (2017). Introduction to rhetoric. Tamari Guide for Writers. 


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