Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hypercorrection Wades in the Water among Jacob and (I or Me)

I try hard not to be "that guy," but I find that my reputation (earned or unearned) precedes me. Because I work as an editor and try to use proper grammar (it helps me practice, like speaking "wed-nes-day" when I spell Wednesday), others assume that I'm constantly judging how they say things. They assume that I'm ready at a moment's notice to take out my red pen. So I often get to see the other side of people, similar to how policemen probably see the other side of people. The result is hypercorrection.

Hypercorrection is exactly what it sounds like: the overzealous correcting of things that don't need to be corrected. It is slowing down when a police car drives by, even if you're going the speed limit. It is the fluffing of already fluffed pillows and the sweeping of imaginary dust when an important visitor is soon to arrive. It is the removal of wise men from nativity scenes. You get my drift.

My first acknowledged experience with hypercorrection--the first time I was called out--was in college. I had to make an announcement in chapel about something the junior class student council was doing (even I forget I was involved in StuCo sometimes...), and I said, "If you have any questions, you can contact so-and-so or myself for more information." What followed was chastisement in the English grammar class I was taking at the time. The professor acknowledged my hypercorrection before the class. "'Myself' is reflexive. People often use it because it sounds more formal, but it's incorrect. You should be ashamed of yourself." Okay, he probably didn't say that last sentence, but still, lesson learned.

Another grammatical instance of hypercorrection is the use of "so-and-so and I." English speakers' natural tendency is to say "so-and-so and me" in all instances, but the specter of grammar teachers past haunts our speech and boxes our ears if we say that. "It's so-and-so and I. Don't be a barbarian!" (I hope your grammar teacher never said that to you.) So now, lesson learned, many of us hypercorrect and use "so-and-so and I" in every situation, even where it's not warranted. "Jacob and I went to the store"--correct. In this instance, "Jacob and I" is the subject of the sentence, and I is appropriate. "The tooth fairy is visiting Jack and I tonight"--wrong. "Jack and I" should be "Jack and me" because it is the object of the sentence. A good rule of thumb (this one's free, by the way) is if you could replace the "so-and-so and I" phrase with we, use I. ("We went to the store.") If you can replace it with us, use me. ("The tooth fairy is visiting us.") These are but two instances of grammatical hypercorrection. (I won't get into the gross, hypercorrective use of "whom.")

But the reason I'm writing this post is not to teach you about grammar. When I was working on a project just the other day, I remembered an event from elementary school. It was February--black history month--and we were learning "Wade in the Water" in my music class. We had been reading books about the Civil War and slavery, including a biography of Harriet Tubman. So this was probably an effort to "teach across the curriculum." (Do I get extra points for using educational buzz words?) In any case, we sang the song, but we changed the words from "God's a-gonna trouble the water" to "I'm a-gonna trouble the water," as if a child is getting into a pool and upsetting the peaceful state of it. There were hand motions where we pointed double thumbs back at ourselves as we sang this line, and I didn't think anything about it--why should I? It was better than the environmentalist propaganda songs we sang.

But I realize now how this was an instance of hypercorrection. The teacher was trying to avoid even a whisper of you-know-Who, and so the words were changed. However, in doing so, it completely robbed the song of any of its original meaning, and certainly of the history the school was pretending to teach us. And the song doesn't weep for poor sinners to come home or call people down to the altar; it expresses the slaves' belief that God would rescue them. Regardless of what you attribute the end of slavery to, you cannot deny that the slaves' faith rested in God. It seems not only ignorant to pretend otherwise, but counterproductive, especially when learning history, which refers to events, culture, and, yes, beliefs in times past. Just because those beliefs match the hope of many today does not mean we can't mention them in school if they are historically pertinent. This is a gross instance of hypercorrection, and one I fear is representative. (I hope I'm wrong.)

Of course, it wouldn't be fair to say this without also pointing out that sometimes Christians can be guilty of the same thing in the other direction--interjecting God into history where he may not have been the motivating cause for historical decisions. And there are plenty of instances of both.

What instances of hypercorrection do you see, grammatical, historical, or otherwise?


  1. This brings back memories. Thanks for not naming me (or myself) in your example. Since I am, at heart, a descriptivist, I play the prescriptivist only for fun or when required to do so by my job. (In just a few weeks, this year's crop of "the few, the proud, the grammarians" will be learning about the chicken.)

  2. It is much more fun to play the prescriptivist than to be one. I'm glad that a new batch of grammarians will be introduced to the chicken.

  3. I'd like to hear more about the correct usage of "whom"!!!

    I can't wait until I get enough courage & finances to go back to school and major in communications.

  4. Sarah, you're the second person to ask. Maybe that will be the subject of a future post.

  5. Jon, yay. There's nothing more to say about this. Well, other than I don't recall ever thinking you'd "judge" my improper use of grammar. You remind me to practice "proper" grammar at times, though. Oh, and that Shawn Holtgren's brother Jerry taught me the proper use of pronouns in high school.

    I guess I could use a refresher course on "whom". I think I'm okay with it, but sometimes I'm not quite sure.

    P.S. I like the chicken, but I think I need to take grammar class again.