January 28, 2015 12:26 UTC

'Hypercorrection Is Not Simply Being Fussy or a Nitpicker or a Pedant'

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- getting hyper about correctness.

RS: English once had a system where nouns took different forms depending on whether they were the subject or the object of a sentence. We've lost most of that.

AA: But this system survives in pronouns -- words like "I" and "me" and "she" and "her." And, as English Professor Jack Lynch at Rutgers University explains, these can be confusing, and lead to common errors known as hypercorrections.

JACK LYNCH: "Hypercorrection is not simply being fussy or a nitpicker or a pedant. The 'hyper' part, from Greek, means 'too much.' It means working so hard to avoid one potential problem that you end up falling into another one."

RS: "Can you give us an example?"

JACK LYNCH: "Sure. We're taught as children, and beginning language learners are told, you don't say 'me and you went to the movies.' It should be 'you and I.' And a lot of people, therefore, internalize the rule that 'you and I' is somehow more proper, and they end up using it in places where they shouldn't -- such as 'he gave it to you and I' when it should be 'he gave it to you and me.'"

RS: "But we're not hearing that in common, spoken American English."

AA: "What you're hearing is someone would say, let's say, 'He took Rosanne and I to the movies -- '"

JACK LYNCH: "Exactly."

AA: " -- where it should be 'he took Rosanne and me to the movies.' How did this happen? Why are people doing this?"

JACK LYNCH: "It tends to come from areas where people are aware that there's something a little tricky in the language. Now it doesn't often happen if the preposition -- words like 'to' and 'for' and 'with' -- comes before one of these tricky pronouns. You would never say 'he gave it to she and I.' 'To she' just sounds wrong to us immediately. But 'to you' is right because 'you' has the same form whether it's the subject or the object."

RS: "So that's a piece of cake there."

JACK LYNCH: "There are other areas where we make these mistakes; the word 'whom,' for instance."

RS: "And 'who.'"

JACK LYNCH: "Yes, 'who' and 'whom.' Many people know there's this word 'whom' out there and they have a sense it's associated with 'proper' usage. But they end up using it wrong, such as 'whom should I say is calling?' It should, in fact, be 'who should I say is calling?' because 'who is calling' -- it functions as a subject."

RS: "So this is a subject/object thing again."

JACK LYNCH: "Yes. You wouldn't say 'him is calling.' You would say 'he is calling.'"

RS: "So what's an easy way to remember this?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, whenever you're considering using 'who' or 'whom,' try converting it into 'he' and 'him.' If your ear tells you that you want a 'he' there, you probably want 'who.' If your ear tells you [that] you want a 'him' there, you probably want 'whom.' And the 'm' at the end is a good way to keep them straight."

RS: "Now what about speakers of English as a foreign language, that's another group entirely."

JACK LYNCH: "Sure, and they'll make many of these same kinds of errors, especially with these forms where the language has been changing over a long time, and even native speakers can get confused in them. If you're not really confident in the rules, stick with what you do understand, rather than trying out the things that you don't quite get. Honest errors always sound better than hypercorrections, which run the risk of sounding pompous."

RS: "We talked about pronouns. We've talked about who/whom. Are there any other features that ...

AA: "There's one more. How about 'feeling badly.'"

JACK LYNCH: "Yes, 'feeling badly' is a common problem. Again, we're taught growing up, or we're taught as we're first learning language, that we have to use adverbs with verbs. We don't say 'he did it good,' we say 'he did it well.' We don't say 'he ran quick.' We say 'he ran quickly.' But there is a whole class of verbs, verbs of being, which can include verbs related to sense, that do properly take the adjective. So 'I'm feeling badly' is in fact a hypercorrection."

RS: "So 'I'm feeling badly' is you're not really feeling some thing well."

JACK LYNCH: "Exactly. 'Feeling badly,' what that would mean is something like I'm not doing it correctly, or I'm not touching something very sensitively, something like that. But if you mean feel in the sense of feeling good or bad in yourself, then it should be 'I feel bad' or 'I feel good.'"

AA: Jack Lynch is an English professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He says that as language continually changes, today's hypercorrection will probably become another generation's correct usage.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Send e-mail to word@voanews.com. And we've got all our segments at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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