To Err is Human

By Maeve Maddox

If you are an American speaker, you probably pronounce the word err to rhyme with air.

Although American, I went to school to nuns from Newfoundland; I learned to pronounce err to rhyme with fur, as in Pope’s verse, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Literally, “to err” means “to wander or go astray from a marked path.” The noun error originally meant “the act of wandering.” Nowadays, both words are used only figuratively.

One meaning of err is “to go wrong in judgment or opinion”:

IPCC scientist and Pennsylvania State University professor of meteorology Michael Mann [said], “Many scientists felt that report erred by underplaying the degree of confidence in the linkage between climate change and certain types of severe weather…

In a religious context, “to err” means “to go astray” or “to sin”:

Affluence causes people to err from the Truth.

False teachers cause the faithful to err by their ignorance.

Err rarely occurs in everyday speech except in the idiom “to err on the side of caution”:

We cancelled a trip to California this month because of uncertainty over the safety of flying. I’d rather err on the side of caution.

I’d rather doctors erred on the side of caution than risk a fatality.

“To err on the side of caution” means, “to make the mistake of being more careful than necessary, rather than make the mistake of not taking sufficient precautions and later regretting it.”

The American pronunciation of err to rhyme with air is the source of spelling errors:

There doesn’t seem to be a true consensus on whether a UV filter is absolutely necessary for your lens. However I would rather air on the side of caution and have one.

When unsure if crossing a public boundary that may create feelings of discomfort, it is best to air on the side of caution and simply send a private message.

With rabies, ALWAYS air on the side of caution.

Another common error with err is semantic. Some speakers seem to think that “on the side of” in the expression “to err on the side of caution” means “to be on the side of,” or “to prefer” or “to show preference toward.” These speakers substitute other nouns for caution, with some interesting results:

I tend to err on the side of sports car tires v rated or higher for the best grip.

A standard television gives about 35 ftL. Big cinemas are about 15ftL. Definitely err on the side of television.

I like both [cats and dogs] but I’d err on the side of dogs.

Hide behind your money, boys. Mayor Bloomberg will always err on the side of wealth.

I’ve also seen:

err on the side of misery and guilt
err on the side of disappointment
err on the side of intelligence

Two ways to avoid errors with the verb err:

1. Always end the phrase “err on the side of” with the word caution.
2. Remember the alternative pronunciation that makes err rhyme with fur.

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7 Responses to “To Err is Human”

  • ApK

    I always pronounced “err” the same as the first syllable in “error.”
    That is, beginning with a short E sound, not an A sound as in air nor a U sound as in fur.

    One thought about this proposed rule:
    >> 1. Always end the phrase “err on the side of” with the word caution.
    Why? What’s wrong with coining other similar idioms, as long as the meaning is “making a mistake in favor of…” and not merely “choosing the side of?”
    “I knew I’d probably g out of business by charging so little, but I chose to err on the side the customer.”

  • thebluebird11

    Well, it never ceases to amaze me, the stuff people will come up with to butcher a phrase. I grew up in NYC, and we pronounced err to rhyme with fur. I never really liked that word because when pronounced like that, it sounds more like a hesitation. “I would, er, um, uh….” To pronounce it to rhyme with air might be better, but sounds somewhat affected to me.
    Almost the only time I heard it used is as you said, with the “err-on-the-side-of-caution” phrase. Somehow when the “er[r]” sound follows the other “er” sound (rather err), it isn’t so bad!
    However, I admit that I have heard it used as ApK mentions, to “err on the side of the customer,” or something along those lines, to mean that if one can’t make a determination as to who (or what) is right or best, one takes one’s chances and hopes for the best.
    These butcherings are why I don’t surf the ‘Net much, but for when I do, DWT is bookmarked!

  • venqax

    I think the UR rhymes-with-fur pronunciation is actually more “correct” even though the rhymes-with-AIR pronunciation is much more common in American and is consistent with the pronunciation of error. I remember some source regarding this, but can’t recall the details. Like bluebird I tend to avoid the word because I think AIR is wrong and UR sounds ridiculous– lose/lose.*

    ApK: I always pronounced “err” the same as the first syllable in “error”… not an A sound as in air.
    Unless you’re a technical linguist I think the first syllable in ERROR and AIR are homonyms. I don’t know what the distinction you’re making is. AIR, AIR-UR ??

    *I don’t order DIKE-eries at bars, either. I call them “white rum margaritas”. Same reason.

  • ApK

    – I think the first syllable in ERROR and AIR are homonyms.

    Hmm. Well, both my wife and my phone’s voice recognition system seem to agree with you. But in my head, the long A of air sounds distinctly different than the short E err. Well, if no one else hears the difference when I say it, at least I have no risk of subconsciouly confusing the two when I write….

  • Maeve

    A reader just sent me this memory aid for “err”:

    Would you like to sin with Eleanor Glynn on a tiger skin,
    Or would you prefer to err with her on another fur!

  • venqax

    All right, a little more on this from a few sources that all seem to agree, (UsageStacks, Grammarphobe, Cambridge). Seems that the AIR pronunciation IS actually older and “original” in English, along with something like “ear” as evidenced by its coming through the French errer from the Latin errere and its relation to the Germanic irri and irr, which may well have been injecting themselves into English at the same time through Norse . That’s consistent with error, erroneous etc. The UR pronunciation came later- -maybe a lot later—for reasons that are not apparent. There doesn’t seem to be any authority for UR. It was the dominant pronunciation at least in England by the 19th century—hence the mistaken notion that it is original, traditional, or proper—but no source seems to know why. The AIR pronunciation has been making a return, at least in the US, for about 50 years now. So I guess it can be said that Americans, at least, AIR in the direction of UR. UR is only “pseudo-traditional”, like “an historic”, and adVERTisement.

    Also, of interest, is this quotation,

    “The interjection is ‘er’, and it’s a British stall word. The American equivalent (which is pronounced almost the same) is ‘uh’.”

    This makes sense, too. From an American POV, we see “er” or “err”in writing regularly, as the article notes, but no one says that, so it struck me as odd. I always thought it was just an odd spelling convention. It’s not uncommon for spellings of interjections to be out-of-sync with pronunciations: “Hiccough”, which we always pronounce hiccup, despite the spelling; “Oh oh” for what we really say as Uh oh, etc. As an American I always just assumed that “er” was an oddly off, probably anachronistic spelling for uh, or umm. I didn’t know that is was actually said as such in British (accounting for a non-rhotic accent.)

  • Umer Baloch

    Just to add a different dimension to the discussion, the phrase “to err is human” reminded me of the Urdu (national language of Pakistan) word for human: Insaan. The urdu version of the word, which is borrowed from Arabic, means the one who forgets. It is kind of similar to the usage in phrase.

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