The Most Famous Grammatical Gaffes in History

Wednesday, May 192 min read

There’s something giggle-inducing about stumbling across a grammatical error, whether it’s a headline with the wrong word, or a famous writer misspelling “Mississippi.” Maybe it’s because it reminds us that these powerful figures are human, just like us. Or maybe it’s because we know how easy it is to mix up common English words like “your'' and "you're." Whatever the reason, here are some famous grammatical gaffes to keep you smiling.

Dan Quayle & the “Potatoe” Incident

There are some words that always take a second to spell correctly — “millennial,” “judgment,” “definitely,” “correspondence.” Then there’s “potato.” In 1992, former Vice President Dan Quayle visited a local New Jersey school. He invited one of the students to come up to the blackboard to write the word “potato.” The student grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote in cursive on the blackboard, “P-O-T-A-T-O.” After the student finished, Quayle had him add one more letter: “E.”

Thanks to the gaffe, the student, William Figueroa, went on David Letterman's show and even earned a spot in the official potato museum. For Quayle, however, it was the misspelling heard ‘round the world. He recounted the experience in his memoir, describing it as “a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind.”

Constable Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

The Bard wasn’t just skillful at poetry and prose — he liked to create new words, such as "swagger" and "bandit," when no existing terms would suffice. He also had characters use malapropisms, or incorrect words, usually for comedic effect. Take Constable Dogberry, the bumbling officer in Much Ado About Nothing. When leaving the royal court, he shouts, “Adieu: be vigitant, I beseech you.” The line always earns a laugh from vigilant audience members. The term “Dogberryism” came to be a synonym for “malapropism.”

The Ten Commandments in the (Wicked) Bible

What a difference one word can make. One of the Christian Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But in a 1631 printing of the Bible, the word “not” was missing, and the seventh commandment read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Most of the misprinted copies were gathered, burned, and destroyed (much to the chagrin of collectors today), and the printers of the Bible were fined 300 pounds — the equivalent of over 50,000 GBP in today’s money — for the mistake.

Or was it a mistake? Some historians speculate the grammatical error was planned sabotage from a rival printer — for there is a second error! In a later section, a passage reads “Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse,” instead of “greatnesse.” These two errors earned this printing of the Bible the nickname “The Wicked Bible.”

The Death of Yogi Bear in the Associated Press

Famous New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is known for Hollywood-level quippy one-liners, like “it’s deja vu all over again.” Similar to Constable Dogberry, some of Berra’s quips were malapropisms, or “Yogi-isms.” But the biggest mix-up came after Yogi Berra died, courtesy of the Associated Press. In a 2015 press release announcing the beloved catcher’s death, the outlet announced, “New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Bear has died. He was 90.”

To give some credit to the AP, the cultural link between Yogi Bear and Yogi Berra is pretty strong — even if the creators insist the famous bear of Jellystone National Park wasn’t inspired by the ball player. Nonetheless, Twitter had a field day — all puns intended — with the gaffe.

Featured image credit: Universal History Archive/ Contributor/ Getty Images

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