During her Senate hearing this week, Judge Sonia Sotomayor seemed to make no major gaffe that would threaten her confirmation as the next justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, one of the few errors ascribed to her was her use of the word eminent rather than imminent. When asked about the right of self-defense, she replied that the law permits self-defense in situations presenting an eminent danger.
While listening to the exchange, I felt a brief twinge of confusion, but I didn’t consciously notice the error. My brain adjusted, replacing the offending word with the correct, similar-sounding one. The human mind is remarkably agile that way.
While this is true of word usage, it’s less true when it comes to grammar—such as when an adjective is used instead of an adverb. Think of usage as a curtain and grammar as the rod: A curtain remains functional even if it doesn’t quite match the decor. But when the rod’s integrity is compromised, it will tumble down, taking the most beautiful curtains with it.
When someone of Judge Sotomayor’s education and intellect misspeaks, it reminds us that we’re all fallible. Little errors like this are nothing to fret about. They don’t generally impede communication. In writing, however, such errors are more obvious and less excusable. One advantage of writing over speaking is the opportunity to edit. Make the most of it.