Stephen Lewis: Correct or hypercorrect? Let your ear be the judge

Stephen Lewis

Some people just try too hard to use “good” English, by which they mean a system of rules that establish lines that should not be crossed just like those indicated by speed limits. If you go faster than the posted limit, you are doing something wrong. Similarly, if you utter a word or phrase that you have been taught is incorrect you have committed an offense against the guardians of the language.

Even today when compressed digital expression relies on a vocabulary of phonetic abbreviations, such as “ur” for “you are,” and when much of popular culture delights in being “improper” there remain circumstances in conversation and writing for which using so-called “good” English is considered a necessary social skill.

A full discussion of what exactly constitutes “good” English is impossible in this space. What can be said is that it is the usage employed by educated speakers and writers in more or less formal circumstances. The desire to conform to that usage can lead to a phenomenon known as “hypercorrection.” Being hypercorrect means applying one rule of correctness to a situation where it does not apply, resulting, in fact, in being incorrect in the pursuit of correctness.

For example, children learning the language do not know about the difference between subjective and objective case in pronouns, which change form depending upon their function as subject or object. A child might say “Me and her are friends,” at which point some adult, or even an older sibling, will act as correction police and indicate that the proper sentence would be “She and I are friends.”

That lesson gets drummed into the child’s head without further explanation. The child reasonably assumes that “she” is preferable to “her” and “I” is preferable to me. However, that lesson leads to an unintended consequence when this same speaker, now somewhat older, wants to comment on the closeness of the relationship with that other person: “There are no secrets between her and I.” My ear twitches when I hear that construction. Perhaps yours doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you have been victimized by hypercorrectness and hear “I” where your brain should tell you that you want to hear “me,” as in “between her and me.”

Why?

Because the grammatical function has changed from being a subject in the first sentence to an object in the second. “I” is the subject of a verb in the first while “me” is an object of a preposition in the second.

I don’t have space in this column to wade with you into the grammatical weeds of subjects and objects. You’ll have to trust me on that. Or perhaps your ear can help you. Reverse the order of the phrase to “between I and her,” and you can probably hear that the “I” just doesn’t sound right. That is because even if you have no academic knowledge of grammar, your ear without being able to name it recognizes “between” as a preposition and through countless repetitions understands, again without nomenclature, that an object form of the pronoun after the preposition “between” is required.

There are other common instances of this phenomenon, such as saying, “I feel badly for her.” No, the problem is not the “her.” It is the “badly,” which preferably would be “bad,” a question of adjective vs. adverb after certain verbs where what follows the verb modifies the subject.

Your eyes might be glazing over, and I am out of space. Both of these usages are widespread, even coming from people who speak for a living. Listen for them and see if you can train your ear to distinguish between correct and hypercorrect.

Or maybe just go on with your life as before.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.