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Slip FAQ

What is the difference between a slip and a grammatical error?

As long as you said what you intended to say (albeit something that would make your highschool English teacher turn green) you are slip-free. A slip occurs when what you intended to say does not match what you actually said. For example, none of the following are slips; they are just not prescriptively correct English.

  • It ain't gonna rain no more, no more...
  • I done told you once you son of a gun, I'm the best there's ever been!
  • Me and my RC!

Here are some slips. The sentences they are in are grammatical. One of the great things about slips research is sometimes, the data are just fun to read. I often find myself wondering what reality would look like if these speech errors were really true reflections of the world around us.

  • Utterance: In the grand scream of things.
    Target: In the grand scheme of things.
    I said this while lecturing one afternoon. Yes, I was lecturing about slips of the tongue! The /r/ in 'grand' got reused in the following word. Technically we'd call it a phonological perseveration.
  • Utterance: The under grundle.
    Target: The under ground tunnel.
    The 'der' from under replaced both the 'ound' and the 'tun'. I love the 'under grundle'. I wonder what it might be. One of my creative writing students recorded this one in spring 2006.
  • Utterance: There's a shirt for Claire in the basket on the drier.
    Target: There's a shirt for Claire in the basket on the freezer.
    This caused considerable confusion when my spouse said it (June 2006). I wasn't at all sure what the target was: did he mean 'in' the drier. Or did he mean 'on the freezer' which has a wide flat top handy for stacking things like piles of laundry? I knew 'on the drier' was an error (we never leave laundry there).

The key to what is a slip is intention or target. If you said what you intended to say, there is no speech error.

Does everyone make slips?

As far as we know, yes. It may turn out that some people's speech production systems are more error-prone than others, but we've never met anyone who doesn't suffer the occasional slip. I am personally a bountiful source of speech errors: proof that a PhD in linguistics cannot protect you!

How often do slips occur?

Nobody knows exactly, but they are quite common. Listen for yourself for a few days, and you'll be amazed at how frequent they are. It may turn out that they occur in clusters. Once you make a slip, you might remain for a while in a kind of heightened state that makes slips more likely. If you want to try to find out for yourself how frequently slips occur, just listen to people around you for a few days. That amount of time should be enough for you to hear an example of each major kind of slip. I've been recording my slips for a research project. sometimes, I go for hours with no slip. Sometimes, I have a flurry of one every two minutes or so. Very annoying and very funny for those around me!

One reason people aren't very aware of slips of the tongue is the amount of edited speech we hear on a daily basis. All television shows (except the very occasional live show) and commercials are edited. So are movies. Live news is read, not spontaneously spoken, also making slips less likely. Newscasters occasionally make reading errors: seeing a word from a lower or higher line and inserting it into the text or perhaps misperceiving a word, but these aren't speech errors. Songs are carefully edited. Radio DJs can also prepare taped stretches of speech which they can edit. If the TV is on a lot in your home, you hear large stretches of unnaturally slip-free speech, and you may have a false perception of what 'real' speech is like.

What is the most common kind of slip?

This may depend on the language you speak. Sixty percent of errors in English are phonological: made with the sounds of words rather than whole words.

The most common kind of this most common category is one involving the anticipation of a word-initial consonant. Here's an example:

  • Utterance: The little goy and girl
    Target: The little boy and girl

Here, the first sound of the word "girl" /g/ pops up in the utterance before it should and replaces the first consonant in "boy".

Slips with whole words are easier to hear and we notice them more at first. So, your first few collected slips might tend to be errors involving whole words. As you get better at listening, you'll hear more and more phonological errors until, probably, your collection will also contain sixty percent phonological errors.


What is a slip of the Ear?

Speech production isn't the only thing that can go wrong. Speech perception is also a human endeavor afterall! A slip of the ear is said to have occurred when you hear something that wasn't said. Here's an example:

  • I said, speaking about some article of clothing I planned to give away:
    "The give-away box is full, so it's beside it."
    My spouse heard:
    "The give-away box is full, so there's a recital."
    How weird he must have thought I was that afternoon!
It's impossible to know how often slips of the ear occur. If you don't ask, you won't be told that the speaker didn't say what you thought s/he did. What you hear almost always sound similar to what was actually said but is distorted and flavored by what you were thinking or by other factors.

Song lyrics are a marvelous source of slips of the ear. These are called Mondegreens, and they're great fun!

And common. I had some trouble deciding which of mine to confess to publicly. Here's one that has the twin advantages of not being dirty and not too embarrassing. As a kid, I thought Carly Simon sang:
I had a dream there were clowns in my coffee.
But she actually sings:
I had some dreams, there were clouds in my coffee.

First off, you can't blame me for thinking this since it's decidedly cheerier than what Ms. Simon actually had in mind. And second, it really does sound like that. Listen for yourself.

These are different from persistent misanalyses of texts like those generated by children listening to recited texts for example. My oldest daughter, at around age 2-3, used to begin the alphabet like this thanks to some casual exposure to Sesame Street:

a b c d e f g, h i j k Elmo p ...

Do children make slips?

Yes. We have data on children as young as 18 months trying to say one thing and accidentally saying something else. You might not notice this if it isn't a child you know well. You also won't notice these unless you're on the lookout for them.

The first speech error we ever heard our daughter Claire make was when she was probably about fifteen months old.

  • Utterance: Da...mama.
    Target: Mama.
    She started to say dada, and corrected herself. She laughed, letting us know clearly that she knew it had been a mistake.

Here is an example from Claire (age 4). The recording isn't perfect, but if you listen carefully, you can hear it:

  • Utterance: Our house is storta strange.
    Target: Our house is sorta strange.
    In technical terms, we'd say that Claire anticipated the /t/ in 'strange' and inserted it into the syllable onset of 'sorta'.

    Listen for yourself

Do slips occur in all languages?

As far as we know, we have no reason to suspect there is any particular language which grants slip-less-ness to its lucky speakers. Remember: errors are the result of your speech production system misfiring. They aren't caused by the language itself any more than you can say your keys cause themselves to be lost or the perfectly normal stairs tripped you. It's human interaction with the world, not the physical world itself, that is the proximal cause of error.

That said, most of the data we have are from monolingual English speakers. This is slowly changing as researchers begin the fascinating task of gathering data in other languages. At the moment, large collections of errors exist in:

  • Dutch
  • English of course
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Mandarin
  • Spanish

There are smaller collections in Arabic, Finnish, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, and Turkish.

The Slips of the Tongue research Group at SUNY Buffalo is steadily accumulating corpora of slips in other languages.

Are slips "Freudian"?

Some certainly, not most. have a look at the discussion of lexical slips on the main page for a fuller discussion of this topic.


What was the most widely heard slip ever made? Arguably, this occurred in Citizen Kane. After some 24 hours of filming, Joseph Cotten, portraying Jedediah Leland, said the following while pretending to be drunk. It was so perfect, they left it in! One imagines the laughing was also unscripted.

Listen to Joseph Cotten

That has drawn the attention of film critics. What did not make it above the film critic horizon, however, was the following from the same movie about thirty seconds later. (Thanks to linguist Jason Wells-Jensen for pointing this one out.) In an angry outburst, Dorothy Comingore, portraying Caine's astranged wife Susan Alexander said this:

  • Utterance: Of course I'm not high class like you and I didn't go to any skwell school!
    Target: Of course I'm not high class like you and I didn't go to any swell school!

Like Claire (see above) Dorothy anticipated a consonant and inserted it into a word earlier in her sentence. (Our daughter keeps good linguistic company you see.)

Listen to Dorothy Comingore

Before this, during the Golden Days of radio, there were lots of slips broadcast. Some of them have been collected as Radio Bloopers. These were made back in the days when slips were real slips: not extra-funny bits written and then performed to seem like slips.

Do people make slips in their second languages?

They certainly do. Sometimes, of course, it's hard to tell a nonstandard utterance that is the result of lack of knowledge of the second language from a 'real' slip. For example, if a native English speaker were to say any of the following, it would probably be a slip of the tongue. From a non-native speaker though, these might just be lack of thorough knowledge of the grammatical or sound system of English:

  • I am in New York since February.
  • Did what I said was clear?
  • Two dog walked into a bar.
  • I want to dwink more wine.

These, on the other hand, would be genuine second language slips. We can explain each as the result of well-understood processes within a single language system. They look a lot like slips made by native speakers.

  • I hate summer in Ohio because it's too cold.
    Target = hot
  • It's a fine frug.
    Target = rug.

Do people make more slips when they have been drinking alcohol?

Yes, though perhaps not in a way that you might expect. The clearest linguistic evidence of intoxication comes from slurred speech resulting from lack of muscle control in the lips and tongue. These don't count as speech errors since the problem is physical and (strictly speaking) not cognitive. Joseph Stemberger, in an attempt to find out what does happen cognitively under the influence, ran an experiment in which subjects ingested specific amounts of alcohol, had their blood levels measured and then performed a task designed to cause errors. He found that more errors did, in fact occur. He was measuring only phonological errors though. He also found that, although the amount of errors increased, there was no evidence of new kinds of errors happening. That is, when a person is drinking, more of what can go wrong does go wrong.

Do people make errors when they write or type?

Bukcets ofthem! In typing, these are often misorderings of letters (teh for the) or movements of the wrong finger (fust for just). Both people who hunt and peck and those who use all fingers in the standard way make errors though we might expect them to be of different sorts since the method of typing is different.


What about people who write in Braille?

There is probably no human endeavor that is slip-free. Just as you might use the wrong finger when typing on a qwerty or other keyboard, even very good Braillists make mistakes, adding, subtracting, exchanging, perseverating or anticipating dots or whole letters or words. I have a corpus of 1,600 errors made by one 'unnamed' braillist. As in typing on a qwerty keyboard, the most common mistakes are with single finger movements, adding or deleting or substituting one dot for another.

Do people who use ASL (American Sign Language) make slips, too?

They do. They make mistakes with hand shapes, directions of movement and with whole words, just like users of vocal languages do.

Who makes the most slips?

Nobody. Or everybody. There is no data linking number or kinds of speech errors to intelligence, level of education, gender, race, trustworthiness, ability, height, fitness, number of languages spoken ... should I go on? It's probably true that some people make more errors than others, but nobody nows why this is.

Can you cause someone to make a slip?

To some extent, but we can never control exactly what any individual will say. Since slip data are valuable, researchers are anxious to gather it in quantity. It would require armies of linguists and psychologists with endless grant support to collect all the data we want and need if all you could do was sit passively by and wait to hear a naturally occurring slip of the tongue. For this reason, psycholinguists have gone to considerable trouble to develop schemes that induce subjects to make speech errors.

These are laboratory procedures of various sorts. In one, subjects sit before a computer screen and are shown pairs of carefully selected words. At certain points, the subjects are cued to speak the words aloud. The sequence of words is constructed to predispose subjects to make errors with the sound of the words. Imagine yourself reading these pairs:

  • back dog
  • bark dell
  • barn dive
And then being asked to say this:
  • darn bore
The pattern predisposes people to say "barn door". It works reasonably well. It's the same sort of thing that made the following a funny joke when you were maybe eight: or maybe some of you still think it's funny?
  • Kid 1: Please answer my questions quickly to show how smart you are. What do you call the grey stuff that smells that rises out of a burning fire?
  • Kid 2: Smoke.
  • Kid 1: Right. What do you call it again?
  • Kid 2: Smoke.
  • Kid 1: Tell me again? What is it?
  • Kid 2: Smoke!
  • Kid 1: What do you call the white part of an egg?
  • Poor Kid 2 (almost always says): Yolk.

In another scheme, subjects are shown a rapidly-paced cartoon and are told to narrate it. This results in all kinds of errors with a special abundance of environmentally-mediated lexical slips. These methods have the advantage of generating large numbers of errors in small amounts of time. The disadvantage is that the errors are, to a greater or lesser extent, artificially-induced and thus could be a bit suspect. However, scientists must always weigh the advantages of having lots of useable experimental data against the disadvantage that naturally-occurring data might differ in some important way.

Here's the formal write up for that movie study. The film used was a portion of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. Speakers of English, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish and Turkish participated. The good news is that we learned lots about how human beings, no matter what language they speak, make about the same number and kinds of slips of the tongue. Bad news? The researcher who carried this work to completion watched the film with each subject: 18 speakers of 5 different languages. Then, in consultation with other linguists, she listened to the tapes of the speakers' narrations. Adding in a few for the pilot study and a few for just generally getting things wrong at first, the researcher watched the film clip and heard the story told 2(18x5)+20 = (at least) 200 times. The resulting trauma may never fade completely away!


Can I prevent or minimize my own slips?

To some extent, yes. Slips do seem to occur less frequently in scripted situations like live plays. (In movies, etc. these are edited out, of course.) This observation is problematic though since it may be the case that people who are less slip-prone may be more likely to go into acting and other professions where good public speaking is prized. It does seem to be the case that you will make fewer errors on a particular speech if you practice it. Errors do occur even under these circumstances though. Research by Kazuhiru Kawachi shows that even in nonscripted speech, you will make fewer errors if you are going over familiar ground such as a politician giving the same stump speech or a celebrity talking about her new haircut on morning TV for the jillionth time.

When did the study of speech errors begin?

Hard to say. The first famous linguistic study was done in German in 1898 by Meringer and Meyer. Meringer, they say, was truly fierce about his work. When he heard a speech error, no matter where he was or what the circumstances might have been, he apparently interrupted the proceedings and began to interrogate the speaker, asking everything from what the target of the utterance was to the birthday of the speaker. There is, for what it's worth, apparently no connection between your date of birth and the kinds or numbers of errors you make... at least in German. It would be marvelously interesting if, for example, you could specify that people born under the sign of scorpio made more lexical errors. No such luck though.

The modern study of errors can be traced to Victoria Fromkin, who in the 1960s and 1970s published numerous articles on the topic.

How can I learn more about speech errors?

You can start by simply tuning in to what is happening around you all the time. As you listen, you'll become a more astute slip detecting mechanism!



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