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This article is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November - December 1979.

Mistakes Alistair Elliot

PERHAPS there exists an extended critical discussion of mistakes in works of literature, but none springs to mind.

Wordsworth remarks somewhere that nobody objects to our speaking of the sun as rising and setting, in spite of our knowing (but almost by hearsay) that we do the relevant bit of spinning ourselves. Dr Johnson talks about correctness in Shakespeare (in the preface to his edition), but he is concerned with Shakespeare's neglect of literary rules like the unities; he is not thinking of mistakes like the striking clock in Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene 1, line 192-a good place, one might hope, to meet the passing zeitgeists, but not so). Probably the earliest and best-known allusion to the literary calculus of errors is in Horace: Ars poetica, 347-360. Unfortunately Horace doesn't indicate clearly what sort of errors he is covering, but he compares them to the occasional wrong notes of a good musician, to which we are indulgent up to a point. It seems likely therefore that he means grammatical errors such as every schoolboy reader of a classical text has had his attention drawn to-typically, long sentences which begin with a singular subject, add another, and absent-mindedly end up with a verb also in the singular; or possibly that twilit world of certain figures of speech which time and an Alexandrian name had made half-respectable even in Horace's day. (Two relatively modern examples of this are the malapropism and the spoonerism, both of which ...

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