The Grammarphobia Blog

Error checking

Q: Please help me out with this. I know one usually says a person “commits” an error. But if that error becomes the subject of legal action, might one say the person “incurs” an error?

A: One may “incur” liability for an error, but one “commits” (or, more commonly, “makes”) the error, according to standard English dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “incur” in this sense as “to become liable or subject to as a result of one’s actions.”

American Heritage says the verb “incur” can also mean to sustain something undesirable (for example, “incur heavy losses in the stock market”).

As far as we can tell, “incur” has pretty much the same meanings in or out of a courtroom. One “incurs” a penalty for committing or making an error.

The only exception we’ve come across is in techie talk (“the configuration process has incurred an error”), but this usage hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries.

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