Usage and Grammar

Q. My friend Ed says that there is a problem with the sentence “An error occurred while processing your request.” More specifically, he says that it sounds like the error is processing the request. Do you see what he is talking about? Is this a legitimate criticism? The sentence in question is a common message from computer systems, and when we asked around, no one could see a problem with it. I wondered if there might be some underlying grammatical exception that explained why the message seemed so clear (despite the error Ed perceived). But I guess it is just one of those things that people understand unambiguously because of its context.

A. Ed is right about there being a grammar problem, because there is no word in the sentence that tells who is processing, and the best candidate is error. Consider this: if you read “A bird sang while flying by your window,” you understand it to mean “A bird sang while [it, the bird, was] flying by your window.” The grammar is the same in “An error occurred while [it, the error, was] processing your request.” It’s true that people generally understand this construction from its context without perceiving it as an error. The danger is when language like this is used to dodge responsibility for an action. It’s more honest to clean up the grammar and name the actor: “An error occurred while we were processing your request.”