Michael Erard

Michael Erard
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

The Austin journalist and linguistics expert ponders the nature of speech imperfections and what verbal gaffes reveal, or don’t, in Um…Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.

What qualifies as a “verbal blunder”?

It can be a slip of the tongue or any moment where something we’ve planned to say goes awry. It can also be what is known as speech disfluency: “uh” or “um,” restarted sentences, or silent pauses.

Some people might point out that slips of the tongue and speech disfluencies have separate and distinct causes. Isn’t it confusing to put them into the same category as verbal blunders?

The two are different—slips result from a mental plan gone awry, while disfluencies represent a delay or interruption in planning. However, I grouped them because they share a number of properties: Both present undesired if inevitable instances of failing to get things in order in time, and they both can damage social performances.

Why study these blunders?

Slips and disfluencies are windows into how the brain perceives sounds, selects words, constructs sentences, and monitors an utterance before a speaker says it.

So when did you first take an interest?

During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush’s malapropisms and other verbal blunders were called abnormal. The criticisms made for fun reading, but from a scientific perspective, they weren’t accurate.

Where does the Freudian slip fit into the study of verbal blunders?

To Freud, all slips were the result of an unconscious desire trying

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