10 Types of Hypercorrection

By Mark Nichol

Well-meaning writers and editors sometimes mangle the language they’re trying to manage — a fault called hypercorrection. Errors of this class are the result either of adherence to a spurious superstition about proper form, a misunderstanding about a point of grammar, or an attempt to fit a square idiom into a round pigeonhole. Here’s a list of some of the categories of hypercorrection:

1. “A Number Of” Followed by a Singular Verb

Occasionally, a superficial understanding of what constitutes proper grammar leads writers to create a disagreeable subject/verb agreement such as “A number of members is supporting reform.” But longstanding idiom trumps strict correctness: “A number of members are supporting reform” is correct, because the focus is on the members, not on the proportion of them supporting reform. The same commonsense rule holds for handful, majority, and similar terms.

2. As in Place of Like

Writers averse to like as an alternative to “such as” are also prone to replace like with as in such sentences as “He charges as a bull.” “He charges as a bull would do” is correct but stilted; the shorter form implies “He charges in the capacity of a bull,” rather than “He charges in the manner of a bull.” What’s not to like about like?

3. Double Adverbs

Avoid the urge to append an -ly ending to an adverb that doesn’t require it. Flat adverbs do just fine without the suffix, and so do doubtless, much, seldom, thus, and others.

4. Foreign Articles Preceding Foreign Terms

When a noun phrase is temporarily borrowed from another language, writers might be tempted to precede it with an article from that language, as in “At the countess’s wedding, she served as la fille d’honneur” (“maid of honor”). The term alone merits both the emphasis of italicization and the retention of the other language’s form: “At the countess’s wedding, she served as the fille d’honneur.”

5. I Substituted for the Object Me

Some people, when they learn that the object in such constructions as “You and me are the same height” and “Me and John are the candidates” should read “You and I are the same height” and “John and I are the candidates,” generalize that me is an undesirable pronoun, even when used in a sentence’s subject, but “There’s no difference in height between you and me” and “The candidates are John and me,” unlike the sentence versions ending in the word I, are perfectly correct.

6. Latin Plurals Formed Incorrectly

The plural forms of words derived from Latin that end in -us are -uses or -i. Sometimes, the -uses ending is preferred over the alternative (for example, octopuses); sometimes, the reverse is true (as with foci); and sometimes only one form is correct (prospectuses). When in doubt, check the dictionary. When not in doubt, double-check anyway.

7. Prepositions Prevented from Ending a Sentence

Despite admonitions from numerous sources, including a previous post on this site, to ignore the pedantic prohibition against sentence-ending prepositions, some writers, in order to adhere to this fallacious “rule,” persist in uncomfortably trussing sentences up. For example, “What did you do that for?” need not be twisted into “For what reason did you do that?” One could easily write “Why did you do that?” but that kind of cleanup is not always a viable alternative.

8. Unsplit Compound Verbs

There is a curious misunderstanding about compound verbs — phrases consisting of an auxiliary verb (a form of “to be”) and another verb — analogous to the spurious “rule” about infinitives discussed below: Some writers mistakenly believe that adverbs should not be inserted between one verb and another, but that syntax is preferable. Nevertheless, they prefer the clumsy construction “They quietly were calling her name” to the perfectly acceptable wording “They were quietly calling her name.”

9. Unsplit Infinitives

The persistent belief that the elements of an infinitive — to followed by a verb — should not be separated by an adverb can result in an ambiguous sentence, such as “I was preparing quickly to depart,” which could mean “I was hurrying to prepare to depart” or I was preparing to depart hurriedly” — which are not the same thing. The former meaning should be expressed “I was quickly preparing to depart” and the latter should be written “I was preparing to quickly depart” (yes, it’s acceptable to separate infinitives with an adverb) or “I was preparing to depart quickly.”

10. Whom in Place of Who

The troublesome pronoun whom entangles many writers, not only at the head of a sentence but also when leading off a subordinate clause, as in the erroneous example “The top vote-getter is Smith, whom Jones knows is a poor choice.” Whom, here, is not the object of knows; it is the subject of is, and who is the correct companion of a linking verb.

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22 Responses to “10 Types of Hypercorrection”

  • Andrew

    Nit-picky, I know, but the reason ‘octopuses’ is prefered to ‘octopi’ is that octopus comes from Greek rather than Latin. The native plural is ‘octopodes’; ‘octopi’ is impossible.

  • Charles

    Is one of the last two examples for #9 supposed to be “I was preparing to depart quickly”? At the moment, they’re both “I was preparing to quickly depart.”

    “You are in a maze of split infinitives, all alike…” 🙂

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    I believe shying away from “like” is due to people wanting to make a comparative statement properly. “Like” can tend to be lazy since people tend to use it as a crutch and flood their writing with it.

    As with all things, use in moderation.

    Great article Mark, thanks for sharing!

  • Carena

    I love this blog and have learned some juicy tidbits from it. This time, however, it contains what I trust was just a typo that shouldn’t have gotten away.
    While preceding foreign terms with foreign articles is usually not a good idea, a far more egregious (and sadly, far more common) error is to include foreign phrases without making sure the spelling is right. Your example of “le fille d’honneur” screams ignorance not because of the included article but because the article is masculine.

  • Melissa

    While I agree with the sentiment of #5, and nothing annoys me more than an erroneous “I” where “me” is correct, one of the “correct” examples here is wrong: “The candidates are John and me” should be “The candidates are John and I” because the phrase “John and I” is the predicate nominative and thus requires a pronoun in the nominative case.

  • Tony Hearn

    Thanks for a good article. I would add a few observations:

    3. Adverbs. To this I would add, despite two centuries of its recorded occurrence, ‘over’. “He was not over [or: “over much”] concerned by the outcome” does not gain from the ungainly ‘overly’ in place of ‘over’.

    5. It really is easy. Subject and subject complement have formally to be ‘I’. Delete the other part of the pairing and leave the pronoun, and see if it is still right: “She came to see [my mother and] I” is clearly wrong. “She is as tall as [my brother and] me”, while tolerable in informal writing, do not pass in a formal context. “The candidates are John and me” is really of the same water. Formally one would say or write “John and I”.

    6. Here be dragons. You are right to say double-check. Andrew is correct about ‘octopus’. Additionally, ‘prospectus’ is an example of a group of nouns in ‘-us’ in Latin that are a separate group [Latin interlude: their stem ends in ‘-u-‘] and form their plural also as ‘-us’.

    9. It is essential to recognize a shibboleth and the non-splitting of infinitives is indeed one. I would caution, however, that, while the example quoted shows when the infinitive may usefully be split, to make a regular habit of doing so when unnecessary is at the least inelegant – as your alternatives amply demonstrate!

  • Jane Steen

    4. Carena, YES. I jumped on here immediately to point out that it is “la fille,” but you got there before me.

    5. Melissa, this is one of those cases where the temptation to substitute “myself” becomes overwhelming, at which point the whole sentence really needs re-writing. My rule is, if the sentence sounds awkward, reword it.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Great post and excellent comments.

    I seldom see gaffes like “They invited Lulu and I to dinner” in print, but from friends to TV reporters, the misuse of “I” for “me” is rampant. Perhaps it’s a misguided attempt to sound elegant? As Tony Hearn points out in 5., it’s an easy one to spot if you drop the other people.

  • brendan

    Adjectives aside, ‘idiom trumps correctness’?

    What a long, sad, slippery slope.

  • Anto

    (To Tony Hearn) Thanks Tony that confirms my suspicions, up to a point. The problem I have with something like “She is as tall as [my brother and] me” is I don’t know what part of speech the 2nd “as” is. In my ignorance I might have treated it as a preposition and thus said “as my brother and me”.
    Could you enlighten me please.

    Also, I still don’t know Mike which of the two forms you are advocating in #4, “the ….” or “le …” (or “la ….”).
    Your use of “other” on “other language” I find confusing. You start out using it (admittedly “an-other”) to refer to French but are you meaning to imply English in “the other languages form”?

  • Anto

    Oops, sorry Mike – omitted the apostrophe.

    Are you meaning to imply English in “the other language’s form”?

  • Wandering Justin

    A few quick points:

    From #1, ‘“A number of members are supporting reform” is correct, because the focus is on the members, not on the proportion of them supporting reform.’

    Why not just blow off the gerund and say “A number of members support reform.”? More compact, more immediate.

    From #8, ditch the adverb altogether: They whispered her name.

  • John Kelley

    Re; predicate nominative Melissa’s comment is/are I/We

    Following Melissa’s rule can sound stuffy and often ridiculous.
    I was once corrected for saying “It had to be her.” So I replied
    C’mon: ‘ would you say “It had to be “We” .”
    I say we should accept that alternatives are often acceptable especially when their use is so widespread.Languages change over
    time. You can’t stop it.

  • John Kelley

    RE more on misuse of pronouns
    What really annoys me is using “myself” instead of “I’ or “me” It is rampant . “Myself “is a reflexive pronoun i.e “I contradicted, hurt “myself.”

  • Sally

    Thank you, Andrew and Tony Hearn re ‘octopus’ < 'okto = 8' and 'pous = foot,' plural 'octopodes.' The same goes for 'platypus' , 'platys = broad' and 'pous,' plural 'platypodes.'

    And it is also possible, if you know your Latin, to use 'prospectus' as a plural – "The prospectus are ready, Director."

    The fact that so few know the Latin and Greek roots (while adept at calling one another 'skank' and 'ho' on Facebook) constitutes the reason we teach our students to pluralize these words in the normal manner with '-s' or '-es.'

  • John

    RE:use of “their” “they”
    I think it is so widespread as to be acceptable.
    But what is your opinion about using “They” to mean “he or she”
    and “their” to mean” his or her”?? As pronouns they do serve a useful
    purpose here.

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    Here’s my view on the singular they.

  • Claudia Bruaer

    Thank you for sharing this! I’ve had some (not many but some) nit-picking editors in my lifetime who were just trying to justify (to the client) the money they were earning… In the future I might just attach a pdf of this article!

  • Holly

    Question on “who” and “whom”…

    Just saw this in the comments on USAToday’s website. Was curious if this is a correct usage of “whom”?
    ____
    What Microsoft was in the ’90’s, Google is today. Time to come down hard on these robber barons.

    And whom are they robbing?

    you go to Stanford and you your grammar is poor……”whom”

    “Whom” is actually the direct object of “robbing”, so the grammar is correct. Your use of “you your”, however….
    ____

  • Audrey J.

    Being a writer and English being my second language, I love and devoure your blog.

    However, as French is my mother tongue, allow me to correct this: “fille d’honneur” is never used in French. The correct translation for “maid of honor” is “demoiselle d’honneur.”

  • Gen Caruso

    I never seem to know when to use the -ly adverb form, or not.

    Is, “She closed her eyes tight.” correct or, tightly?

    Thanks

  • Tony Hearn

    Anto, that’s an interesting question. Technically /as/ is an adverb. So, ‘she is as tall as (my brother and) I’ should be correct, but it clearly isn’ t idiomatic moder English. This is another case where idiom trumps logic.

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