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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.