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File:Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895.jpg
Train wreck at Montparnasse, France, 1895

Error refers to a difference between actual behavior or measurement and the norms or expectations for the behavior or measurement. The concrete meaning of the Latin word error means "wandering" or "straying", although the metaphorical meaning "mistake, misapprehension" is more common.

Human behavior

In human behavior the norms or expectations for behavior or its consequences can be derived from the intention of the actor or from the expectations of other individuals or of a social grouping or from social norms. (See deviance.) Gaffes and faux pas can be labels for certain instances of this kind of error. More serious departures from social norms carry labels such as misbehavior and labels from the legal system, such as misdemeanor and crime. Departures from norms connected to religion can have other labels, such as sin.

Errors can occur even when individuals have the required knowledge to perform a task correctly. Examples include forgetting to collect your change after buying chocolate from a vending machine, forgetting the original document after making photocopies, and forgetting to turn the gas off after cooking a meal. These slip errors can occur when an individual is distracted by something else.

Oral and written language

An individual language user's deviations from standard language norms in grammar, syntax, pronunciation and punctuation are sometimes referred to as errors. At present, this usage is out of favor outside of language classes. In light of the role of language usage in everyday social class distinctions, some feel that linguistics should be descriptive rather than prescriptive to avoid reinforcing dominant class value judgments about what linguistic forms should and should not be used.


A gaffe is a verbal mistake made by a company or individual, usually in a social environment. The mistake comes from saying something that is true, but inappropriate, or, what might be as bad, an erroneous attempt to reveal a truth. Finally, gaffes can be malopropisms, grammatical errors or other verbal and gestural weaknesses or revelations through body language. Actually revealing factual or social truth through words or body language, however, can commonly result in embarrassment or, when the gaffe has negative connotations, friction between people involved.

A grammatical or literary error is more embarrassing in the company of intellectuals, professors or serious students, just as errors of science can be embarrassing among scientists or doctors. The protagonist attorney in the film Liar Liar plays on the nature of truth revelation, however, and its ambiguous or unexpected consequences.

As used by some journalists, particularly sportswriters, "gaffe" becomes an imagined synonym for any kind of mistake, e.g. a dropped ball by a player in a baseball game. Philosophers and psychologists interested in the nature of the gaffe include Freud and Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze, in his Logic of Sense, places the gaffe in a developmental process that can culminate in stuttering.


See medical error for a description of error in medicine.


In statistics, an error is not a "mistake" but is a difference between a computed, estimated, or measured value and the true, specified, or theoretically correct value. See errors and residuals in statistics.

Experimental science

An error is a bound on the precision and accuracy of the result of a measurement. These can be classified into two types: statistical error (see above) and systematic error. Statistical error is caused by random (and therefore inherently unpredictable) fluctuations in the measurement apparatus, whereas systematic error is caused by an unknown but nonrandom fluctuation. If the cause of the systematic error can be identified, then it can usually be eliminated. Such errors can also be referred to as uncertainties.


In engineering, an error is a difference between the desired and actual performance or behavior of a system or object. (In computational mechanics, when solving a system such as Ax=b there is a distinction between the "error"—the inaccuracy in x—and residual—the inaccuracy in Ax.)

Engineers often seek to design systems in such a way as to mitigate or preferably avoid the effects of error, whether unintentional or not.

One type of error is human error which includes cognitive bias. Human factors engineering is often applied to designs in an attempt to minimize this type of error by making systems more forgiving or error-tolerant.

Errors in a system can also be latent design errors that may go unnoticed for years, until the right set of circumstances arises that cause them to become active. See also Observational error.


See aviation safety for a description of how flying has been made safer by making the aviation system more error-tolerant.

Commercial airlines average 2 errors per flight[1].


In telecommunications, an error is a deviation from a correct value caused by a malfunction in a system or a functional unit. An example would be the occurrence of a wrong bit caused by an equipment malfunction. (Sources: Federal Standard 1037C and MIL-STD-188). See also error-correcting code and error-detecting code. A soft error is a deviation from a correct value which does not necessarily imply a malfunction.

Computer programming

File:Wikimedia error.PNG
Error messages can appear on Wikimedia pages. This example shows a warning that was displayed when a user attempted to save an edited page.

In software engineering, the term error refers to an incorrect action or calculation performed by software. In general, an error results from a combination of a defect (code that does not correctly implement the requirements or intended behavior) and a fault (situation or event that exercises a program's susceptibility to error). If, as a result of the error, the system performs an undesired action or fails to perform a desired action, then this is referred to as a failure.

In software, defects are more commonly referred to as software bugs. It is important to note that a defect can exist in software but never give rise to an error (if no fault event ever occurrs to exercise the defect). Similarly an error can occur without causing a failure if the program detects the error and recovers from it before it can give rise to a system failure.

An error may be detected by the software which can be handled by raising an exception. For instance, it is an error to attempt to write more files onto a disk that is full. Careful programmers write code that can handle errors that may occur, and prevent them from turning into failures; strategies for doing so include using error codes and using exception handling. Continuing past an unhandled error can cause error avalanche, a condition in which errors pile up and one or more failures occur. Also, in hierarchically structured systems, a complete failure of one component may constitute only a fault within a higher level system, which can be detected and corrected at a higher level.

In more general parlance, the term error is also used to describe incorrect actions on the part of a programmer. A syntax error is an ungrammatical or nonsensical statement in a program; one that cannot be parsed by the language implementation. A logic error is a mistake in the algorithm used, which causes erroneous results or undesired operation. Anti-patterns, or undesirable program design elements, may make it harder to detect or correct errors.


In biology, an error is said to occur when perfect fidelity is lost in the copying of information. For example, in an asexually reproducing species, an error (or mutation) has occurred for each DNA nucleotide that differs between the child and the parent. Errors in this sense are not judged as "good" or "bad", although an error may make an organism either more or less adapted to its environment.


In baseball, an error is judged by the official scorer when a runner advances a base because of a fielding mistake, and perfect play would have prevented the advancement, and the mistake was physical. Mental misjudgments are not errors. Failing to get more than one out on a given play is not an error. Application of this rule is necessarily subjective. See error (baseball).

Error Correction

Norman (1986, 1988) argued that because error is inevitable, ‘designers’ should minimize the causes of error, make it possible to undo erroneous actions and make it easier to discover and correct errors. Edmondson’s research focuses on pinpointing specific conditions on group levels which can influence the degree of errors caught and corrected. Although her study was in a specific sector (medicine) some of her conditions can be generalized: a) Unit Leader behaviours. b) Unit performance outcomes c) Unit shared beliefs.

Unit leader behaviours are crucial in creating a culture in which openness of discussing errors, through their open and stimulating behaviour, are used as an example for the others. The unit performance outcomes consist of factors such as quality of interpersonal relations, unit performance and detected error rates. The leader behaviour and the performance outcomes result in shared beliefs. The shared beliefs of error report that first of all, everybody should accept that making mistakes is normal and that it will not be used against one (Helmreich, 1988). Further, the more errors are reported and discussed, the bigger the incentive should be to report and solve other errors.

Jones (1999) adds that technocratic movements have a positive influence on error correction due improved communication. Technological improvements stimulate collaborate thinking and striving for optimalization of systems. Through this, error correction is maximalized. Tsuvijek (1988) implies how technology on one hand can improve error correction, but on the other hand cause more errors due to decreased human intervention.


  1. Helmreich RL (2000). "On error management: lessons from aviation". BMJ. 320 (7237): 781–5. doi:10.1136/bmj.320.7237.781. PMC 1117774. PMID 10720367.

See also

Psychology of error

Error in reasoning

Errors in language

Error Diagnosis and Prevention

External links

de:Fehler it:Errore he:שגיאה nl:Fout sq:Gabimi simple:Error sk:Chyba sl:Napaka sv:Fel