Hypercorrecting A Well-known Phrase

By Maeve Maddox

The phrase all men are created equal has to be one of the best known in the world. Indeed, it’s used so often that it has become a cliché.

The phrase is, of course, from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776). It also occurs in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863).

It’s a lovely phrase and I can understand why we like to use it.

Lately, however, I’ve been noticing statements like these:

Not all charity products are created equally.

Not all online content is created equally.

. . . not all apps are created equally.

Are all IT professionals created equally?

Are All Forms Of Niacin Created Equally?

I think the “equally” must find its way into these sentences because the writer unconsciously wants to follow a verb with an adverb.

If what the writers of these sentences mean to say is that these things are “not of equal worth,” then I think they should be writing equal and not equally. Especially if they are intentionally echoing the words of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Using the adverb equally places the emphasis on the act of making; using the adjective equal places the emphasis on the quality of the thing that has been created.

POSTSCRIPT: In researching this post I discovered the existence of Mum Bett, an American Founding Mother of whom I’d never heard. She should be in the school books along with Sojourner Truth. You can read about her here.

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6 Responses to “Hypercorrecting A Well-known Phrase”

  • Eric C

    Fricking adverbs. Good post.

  • Brad K.

    I am not sure that “not all apps are created equally” is incorrect.

    In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson posits that all men are equal, and that they are equal because they were created that way. But the sense is that men are equal.

    In not all apps are created equally, equal could easily be used instead of equal, and the phrase would have a similar orientation. But as it is presented, the phrase focuses on the creation of apps, that apps come to be through varying creating processes – and that the creating processes aren’t equal. That apps are individual and only vaguely share some community is implied, not that all apps are equal, or to be treated as equal.

    Jefferson introduces the concept of a classless nation and form of government, where each citizen is equal to each and every other citizen before the law and before the government. And, for Jefferson, there is one and only one form, or act, of creating.

    So I can see good sense in the way this particular phrase is used. That for Jefferson one creation, where in the other senses there are varied creating processes.

  • Precise Edit

    In cases like this, I like to substitute other words to evaluate the part of speech.

    For example, to decide whether “equal” or “equally” is appropriate, I might consider these sentences:

    All men are created smart (adjective, describes “men,” makes sense)
    All men are created smartly (adverb, describes “created,” weird)

    All men are created short (adjective, describes “men,” makes sense)
    All men are created shortly (adverb, describes “created,” weird)

    Based on these variations, I can see that the adjective “equal” makes sense as used in the original sentence: “all men are created equal.” Jefferson is describing the men, not the action of creating.

  • Dizzy

    Precise Edit – Ditto. Sometimes it’s the only way I can get around a problematic sentence. A very useful tip indeed.

    I wonder … are all women created equal?

  • Brad K.

    @ Maeve,

    You know, I just noticed. My spell checker doesn’t know about hypercorrecting. Is that a recent dictionary addition? Surely, DailyWritingTips is reluctant to *invent* new words . . {exhibit mild angst and gnashing of teeth, wondering how to express the writer’s sardonic dismay over the lemma of whether to celebrate the birth of a new word, or to lament over yet another loophole in expressing thoughts clearly in proper . . excuse me . . in standard English}

    My Chamber dictionary clearly lists hypercholesterolaemia (n., a condition characterized by abnormally high levels of blood cholesterol).

    Hypercorrection n. a correction made in the mistaken belief that nonstandard linguistic usage is being this avoided, eg the erroneous use of I in the place of me in phrases such as ‘between you and I’.

    Hypercorrect adj. over correct; very critical; due to or showing hypercorrection. Would hypercorrecting then be verbing an adverb? Since hypercorrection is a mistake, a change made in the mistaken belief that an error is being corrected, is hypercorrecting creating an error or introducing mistakes, or some of each at near random?

    I had thought I understood this post.

  • Nancy Miller

    My real concern though is…is it “unalienable” or “inalienable”? I’ve heard that Thomas Jefferson & John Adams violently disagreed about which was correct throughout their lives–no wonder the American people have been constantly at odds with each other!

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