The Language Perfectionist: Can You Be Too Correct?

English has rules that should be respected. One purpose of this column is to encourage proper use of the language. But a problem sometimes arises: People try to apply a rule with excessive conscientiousness and wind up, ironically, committing another kind of error. This phenomenon is called hypercorrection.

The classic example involves personal pronouns. Schoolchildren are taught not to use “me” in the subject of a sentence. Thus, “Jim and me are going to the baseball game” should be “Jim and I are going….”

But some folks misconstrue the lesson and say, for example, “I’ll tell you how much he was paid, but the amount is just between you and I.” In this case, because the pronouns are the object of the preposition “between” — not the subject of the sentence — it should read “between you and me.”

Another common error — again mistaking the subject for the object — is the use of “who” where “whom” is correct. “Who do you admire most?” should be “Whom do you admire most?” In this case, “whom” is the object of the admiration.

But here, too, some people misapply the who (subject) / whom (object) rule and make the opposite mistake. I found this sentence in a newspaper article online: “He fully accepts responsibility… for the situation into which he put his wife, whom he knows is entirely blameless in all of this.” It should read: “who he knows is entirely blameless….”

Here’s a helpful tip if you’re ever in doubt: Mentally remove the peripheral phrase — in this case, “he knows.” Then it becomes clear that it’s the wife “who is” blameless. No one would ever say “whom is.”

Finally, usage guru Bryan A. Garner notes an interesting instance of hypercorrection, which he calls “false Latin plurals.” Because people are aware that, for example, the plural of syllabus is syllabi, they mistakenly echo the rule where it doesn’t apply — by saying, for example, octopi (octopuses is correct) or apparati (apparatuses is correct).

I’m reminded of an old joke about a bartender puzzled by a customer who orders a “martinus.” Why? Because he wants one martini, not two.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]