The Err Is Human Essay

Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

On this program we explore the origins of common expressions in American English and, more importantly, how to use them.

We really want to do an excellent job teaching and entertaining our audience. So, we try to do this program as best we can every time.

But sometimes we make mistakes. We err.

Making a mistake is not pleasant, but it is natural. One well-known saying begins, “To err is human…” In other words, making mistakes is part of being a person.

But what about those who suffer because of someone else's mistake?

The saying answers this question, too. It says, “…to forgive (is) divine.”

That means that excusing others for their faults makes us a little better than just being human. The act is god-like.

This popular saying is an old one. It comes from the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope. He wrote about forgiveness in an essay titled "An Essay on Criticism."

However, Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary says the original idea is older than that. In 1678 Thomas Jones wrote, "To err, is human; to recover, is Angelical; to persevere is Diabolical.” But this saying wasn't as memorable and, therefore, it just didn't stick.

"Err" comes from the Latin word "errare,” meaning “to stray or wander.” Related words, such as errant and erroneous, have the same Latin origin.

But the noun form of “err,” error, appears in many American English expressions.

For example, human error is often the reason police give for a preventable – but unplanned – accident. If a train crashes because the driver fell asleep, that crash was caused by human error.

But some errors or mistakes are nobody's fault directly.

Let's say a plane crashes. An investigation proves that the crash was caused by an undetectable engine problem. There was nothing the pilot could have done differently to prevent the crash. In this case, the cause of the crash was not pilot error.

But that is enough talk about crashes.

Let's say this pilot is on the runway preparing to take off. Suddenly, a bad storm begins. She could take off but decides to wait until the storm passes. We could say she wants to err on the side of caution. This simply means that of all the options available, you choose the safest one.

If you feel sick one day but feel fine the next, you may err on the side of caution and stay home from work.

You can err on the side of other things. For example, let's say your child's school asks for a money donation to build a new playground. You don't know how much other parents are giving. So, you err on the side of generosity and give more than you think is expected.

Here's another example. If a person has treated you badly in the past, you can err on the side of being polite to them.

Acting politely is the right thing to do. And it's good for another reason, as well. When you are nice to people who have treated you badly in the past, they may re-think their bad behavior. They may see the error of their ways.

We often use this phrase when we want to say that a person has realized the things they have done wrong. But be warned – we don’t use this phrase lightly. The "error" in this expression is usually a serious problem with a person's character or behavior that may cause trouble.

This expression also means the person became aware and then fixed the problem.

Let's go back to the pilot.

Imagine she had a bad habit of working too hard. She would lie about her long flight assignments so that she could fly even more routes. However, one day she realized that she was putting the passengers in danger. She saw the error of her ways and stopped.

If her supervisor had caught her and forced her to change her work habits, you would not use this expression. And you would not say the supervisor saw the error in her ways. It is always a self-discovery.

Now, talking about self-discovery brings us to scientific discoveries.

Scientists are very careful people, but scientific research is full of errors. Scientists know this. So, they sometimes say that their findings have a margin of error. That margin, or amount, shows how accurate they think their answer really is.

You can also add prepositions to this expression. For example, if something is unlikely to happen based on information you have collected about it, it is outside the margin of error. If it is likely to happen, it is within the margin of error.

Another scientific term that we use in any part of our lives is trial and error. Trial and error means you find the best way to do something by trying many ways and getting rid of the ways that failed.

Sometimes here at VOA, creating new programs for our listeners involves some trial and error. Sure, it is helpful to know which programs in the past were popular. But times change and so do audiences. We need to be willing to try new things -- that's the trial part -- and fail, or make an error.

If we do fail, I hope you will err on the side of forgiveness and give us another chance.

And that's the end of Words and Their Stories.

I’m Jonathan Evans …

and I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

divine adj. of, relating to, or proceeding directly from God

stick v. to remain in a place, situation, or environment

error n. something that is not correct : a wrong action or statement

errant adj. straying outside the proper path or bounds : behaving wrongly

erroneous adj. not correct

undetectable adj. impossible to discover or notice

cautionn. care taken to avoid danger or risk : a careful attitude or way of behaving

generosity n. the quality of being kind, understanding, and not selfish : the quality of being generous

polite adj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people

To err is human to forgive divine.

To err is human to forgive divine.

To err is human to forgive divine.
Forgiveness is the best revenge.

It is very easy to take revenge but it is very difficult to forgive others. It needs a broad and great heart. Because of the material world we live in, it is common for a person to err but forgiveness is an attribute of god. In taking revenge we all become equal but in not taking revenge we sometimes more than the people surrounding us. Thus this proverb teaches us to forgive the person who does some harm to us and not to take revenge upon him or not try to harm him in more severe manner than he does in return. Forgiveness is the best form of taking revenge as it makes him suffer from a sort of humiliation.

A man decides to take revenge upon others when one is badly hurt by his friends or by his relatives. One gets angry when a person goes against him or does some harm and loses the mental balance and takes revenge upon him. Instead of taking revenge in the imbalance of mind if one pardons the person who does harm, the latter will suffer from a kind of humiliation. Jesus was crucified for going contrary to the accepted opinion at that time. After crucified he prayed to god almighty forgive them as they did not know what they were doing. When we forgive others who did wrong to us, we are also forgiven by God. Similarly when Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse he said, “Don’t harm him." Because, forgiveness is a sign of greatness of a man.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Too much of anything is good for nothing.

This famous proverb literally means that when many cooks are engaged to prepare the broth they will spoil it instead of making it delicious as every cook will cook it according to his own taste and talent. Similarly, consuming or carrying anything too much beyond certain limit will affect bad consequences instead the good result.

When the broth is to be prepared, one is to appoint appropriate number of cooks required according to the quantity and quality of the broth needed. In the similar manner when one loads things of even light weight one must be keenly careful on the quantity to be loaded, not to exceed the capable limit. Similarly when a project is started it should be carried out under the guidance of one main brain. If many persons do the same project they will all use their own ideas and disturb the project. Their ideas may lead to failure. Then nobody bears the responsibility for failure blaming others. It is meaningless and difficult to blame for the damage done to the project. It is not the case of the bigger projects alone but it is widely seen in domestic affairs. When a decision is to be taken or an affair is to be solved, everyone suggest his own idea. If one takes the advice of many brains he will surely spoil his game.

The well-known Tamil poet and sage Thiruvalluvar has said a statement to illustrate this proverb. The feather of the peacock is of lightweight. Yet, if the light weighing feathers are loaded beyond the limit on a cart, the pivot of the cart will get broken. Similarly a student should study his subjects one by one and day by day. If he tries to study all the subjects at the same time he will get confused and so he cannot excel in the examination.

So, when the adequacy is exceeded then everything will get collapsed and thereby spoilt.

To err is human to forgive divine.


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