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On Hypercorrection

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 11:34 AM

Sometimes life teaches us hard grammatical lessons and we overcompensate.

By Meredith L. Dias

Editors care about syntax, spelling, and punctuation. We cringe when we see misplaced apostrophes and dangling participles because, for many of us, it is our job to eliminate them. But sometimes, in our quest for grammatical perfection, we hypercorrect and create a whole new set of problems.

What exactly is hypercorrection? According to Merriam-Webster, it is "of, relating to, or characterized by the production of a nonstandard linguistic form or construction on the basis of a false analogy." Simply put, we sometimes apply hard-and-fast grammatical rules in the wrong situations because we think they apply universally.

Hypercorrection manifests itself in a variety of ways, in both written and spoken English. Let's take a closer look at two of the most common examples.

Object Pronouns vs. Subject Pronouns

We all remember being lectured about "and me" versus "and I" in elementary school. When we we said, "Me and Jeremy went to the soccer game," our teachers sternly replied, "Jeremy and I went to the soccer game." As a result, many writers fell into a pattern of hypercorrection. Some interpreted this rule as meaning that "and me" is never grammatically correct. This mind set has bred generations of people who use subject pronouns when the syntax requires an object pronoun (e.g., "He wants to go to the party with Elizabeth and I" instead of "He wants to go to the party with Elizabeth and me").

The good news is that this type of hypercorrection is easy to reverse. In the example at the end of the previous paragraph, strike "Elizabeth and" from the sentence and read it aloud. One wouldn't say, "He wants to go to the party with I," so this should signal that "me" is the correct pronoun here.

Sentence-Ending Prepositions

Our grade-school grammar lessons strike again. Most of us learned never to end sentences with prepositions, and we've been finding awkward ways to avoid doing so ever since. When I think of this particular form of hypercorrection, I remember a line from a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live. In this particular sketch, Ben Affleck, impersonating then MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, offered up this impassioned syntactic gem: "It is the fear, sir, and the tyranny up with which we dare no longer put!"

In the quote above, we have a phrasal verb ("put up with") that gets utterly mangled when we try to apply the old preposition rule. The truth is, sometimes we can't avoid a preposition followed immediately by terminal punctuation. We should think twice before swiping our red pens at phrasal verbs better left intact at the end of a sentence. As evidenced by the Affleck line, we can do some serious damage to our syntax when we try to split up a linguistic set.

Prescriptive Grammar Gone Awry

For a lot of editors, prescriptive grammar is a way of life. We each adhere to a concrete set of guidelines adapted for our various publications, and when we inadvertently break the rules, we do so with the best of intentions. We hypercorrect because we care -- about crafting clean sentences, about upholding the tenets of good grammar in an increasingly apathetic world. The key to overcoming these grammatical tics is remembering that a rule that works in Scenario A may not necessarily apply in Scenario B.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and its sister newsletter, STRAT.

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