Hypercorrection: Editing Gone Too Far

2 min read

English grammar has a lot of conflicting rules, in part, because it borrows from so many languages. Those conflicting rules can sometimes lead us to overcorrect or hypercorrect when writing or speaking. Check out some common hypercorrections and learn how to avoid them.

Using “Who” Instead of “Whom”


For many of us, “whom” seems stuffy and overly formal when used in daily, casual conversation. But sometimes, if you’re attempting to use proper grammar, you might slip in a “whom.” It’s not just a case of formal vs. casual, however. “Who” and “whom” each have their own correct usages and changing the word might be a hypercorrection.

How is a speaker supposed to know when to use it? A good rule of thumb: if you’re not sure whether to use “who” or “whom,” try answering the question you pose.

CORRECT: Whom are you bringing to the party? (I’m bringing HIM to the party.)

INCORRECT: Whom shall I say is calling? (HE is calling.)

If the answer to the question could be “him/her,” then “whom” is required (match up the “m”). But if the answer could be “he/she/they,” then “who” is grammatically correct.

Mispronouncing Words

Pronunciation is key when speaking, regardless if it’s Italian, Japanese, or English. Cero, the word for “zero” in Italian, is pronounced “CHAIR-o.” Sometimes applying that “ce” pronunciation rule in other languages works (like “cello” in English). But a type of hypercorrection, called hyperforeignism, can occur when applying a certain linguistic rule (such as a hard “ch-” sound) to words in different languages, like cebolla, the Spanish word for onion. Here the “ce” is pronounced with a soft “se-” sound (seh-BOY-ah).

How to avoid this hypercorrection? It may only come with experience. Learning words in new languages — which is great when traveling — can provide some context for the appropriate pronunciations.

Incorrect Plurals

Last Week Tonight pointed out a common hypercorrection many of us make: the plural of “octopus.” The first instinct is to say “octopi,” or maybe “octopodes”? Similar to mispronouncing words, this hypercorrection has roots in different languages, literally. The word “octopus” comes from Greek (octo meaning “eight” and pous meaning “feet”). In Greek, the plural adds an “-es,” making the correct word “octopuses.”  Contrast that with “cactus,” which has roots in Latin. The plural of “cactus,” as a result, is “cacti.”

Adding ‘-ly’ to an Adverb

A quick grammar refresher: adverbs modify other adverbs, as well as adjectives and verbs.

Example : The dog ran quickly.

Some adverbs need the “-ly” in order to be grammatically correct. In the above example, “the dog ran quick” is clear, but it’s not grammatically correct. However, there are some adverbs that don’t require an “-ly,” such as “fast.” (These are called flat adverbs.)

Example: The dog ran fast.

Flat adverbs are often hypercorrected since they undercut the grammar lesson of “always end an adverb with an -ly,” and they’re not used often (“often” is another flat adverb). Senses (touch, taste, smell, sight) are a good indicator that a flat adverb works best (another flat adverb).

Example: This chocolate cake tastes bitter.

In the above example, “bitterly” would sound out of place. “Bitterly” is more appropriate for emotional verbs, such as “cry.”

So why do people make hypercorrections? It can be a way to signal a certain level of education or erudition. It can also be a deductive reasoning gone wrong, much like writing “could of” because, when spoken, that’s what “could have” sounds like. And sometimes we have to say or write it wrong in order to learn.

Featured photo credit: FangXiaNuo/ iStock

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