I remember one of the humorist Dave Barry’s satirical “Ask Mr. Language Person” columns years ago, in which the all-too-sure-of-himself Mr. Language Person opined that “‘me’ is always incorrect.” Barry was referring indirectly to an example of the phenomenon of “hypercorrectness,” which I’d argue leads to almost as many grammar slips as does its opposite, carelessness. I say “almost as many” because these slips are so common!
In a nutshell, a writer slips into hypercorrectness when he or she isn’t gut-sure about what is correct and inoculates him- or herself by making a grammatical choice that sounds just a teeny bit “fancy” and thus “must” be what an educated writer ought to opt for.
As with all grammar choices, whether or not a hypercorrectness slip will hurt you with that editor or agent you hope to impress, or whether it will get your prose chewed up in red in your business report, depends on whether or not your particular audience knows the difference or, for that matter, cares. I’ve seen so many kinds of errors, including just plain careless ones, in so many “erudite” places that I know it can be a toss-up whether your slip costs you an acceptance or gets ignored.
But I argue that knowledge is the power to choose with confidence. The “correct” choice sounds funny to you, so you’d rather go with the “incorrect” one because it feels more natural? Go for it. But it’s really nice to make that choice because you know what you’re doing and why you want it that way.
The single most ubiquitous hypercorrectness error, as Barry recognized, may be the prejudice against poor little “me.” And the single most common example of that prejudice is “between you and I.”
What? That’s wrong? Well, if you’re a purist, yes—for the same reason it’s wrong to write “the zombies were chasing George and I.”
Why? Because, in both cases, the pronouns are “objects” and should be in the “objective case”: that is, “me.”
There’s really a simple test. Strip out or move the proper name or problematic pronoun and see what you have:
- Between I and you
- The zombies were chasing I
Case two: Sometimes what sounds natural is better. E. g., the who/whom conundrum
I’ve suggested in a prior post that if choosing between these two options leaves you sweating, go with “who.” The situations in which “who” won’t work for almost all readers are rare: say, when you’re inverting the sentence or inserting the pronoun behind an actual preposition:
- To whom are you speaking?
- This is the person for whom I was waiting.
If you are writing Downton Abbey fan fiction, okay, you’ll have to master these forms. But in most cases
- Who are you talking to?
- That’s who I was waiting for.
will pass muster with almost everyone, even if they are technically incorrect. But as I wrote in my earlier post, the correct forms,
- Whom are you talking to?
- That’s whom I was waiting for.
can actually sound more jarring in many contexts than the errors.
But the troll of hypercorrectness comes charging out from under the bridge when a writer gets paranoid and decides that “whom” sounds like what a smart person would say. Then we end up with
- He didn’t say whom would be going to lunch.
- Don’t give money to whomever asks for it.
In both cases, the correct choice—and the more unobtrusive choice regardless of what’s correct—is “who.” (For those who enjoy these kinds of things, the rule is that the case of the pronoun is governed by its role in its own clause, not the clause in which it’s embedded.) You can actually apply the same test as for the “I/me” choice: you wouldn’t write, ” He didn’t say her would be going to lunch.” It’s clear you need the subject case.
I came across this usage (though not this exact sentence) in a self-published book just the other day:
- Our worries lied in the way he was behaving.
Obviously, I can’t know what prompted the writer to make this choice. But I suspect it’s another instance of hypercorrectness, based on the Mr.-Language-Person-type precept that, in this case, “‘lay’ is always incorrect.” We’ve heard and heard and heard that people don’t “lay,” chickens do. So it must follow that anywhere our uneducated ears order us to say “lay,” we must really need “lie.”
There’s really no test or easy fix for this one. If you aren’t sure but really want to be, you have to look it up. I will say that the use of “lay” as in “I’m going to lay out in the sun for a while” has become so universal that many an otherwise persnickety person will read right past “lay” in this usage. They’ll probably read past “we laid out in the sun yesterday” (yes, “lay” is the correct past tense of “lie”). But I suspect that most readers would hiccup at “We lied out in the sun yesterday.”
Moral? Sometimes it’s better to be technically wrong than hypercorrect. If you really want to be correct, don’t guess. When in doubt, find out!
2 responses to “Is the Hypercorrectness Troll Gobbling Up Your Grammar?”
Great post. Thanks for your comment on my blog and the link. The tendency of the less educated to overcorrect used to be called a “hyperurbanism.” It can lead to some comical results.
Love the funny about the Downton Abbey fanfic. 🙂
I’m personally often on the fence about “correctness” in general. Comes from being an academic. I know “correctness” is a moving target, but I still have my own little troll jumping up and down on the back of my neck whenever I see ‘between you and I.” Sigh.