Monday, July 20, 2015

Linguistic hypercorrection

In linguistics or usage, hypercorrection is a non-standard usage that results from the over-application of a perceived rule of grammar or a usage prescription. 

A speaker or writer who produces a hypercorrection generally believes that the form is correct through misunderstanding of these rules, often combined with a desire to appear formal or educated. 

Linguistic hypercorrection occurs when a real or imagined grammatical rule is applied in an inappropriate context, so that an attempt to be "correct" leads to an incorrect result.

A familiar example is when a person says, "It seems to my friend and I that such and such." The correct form is "my friend and me" because friend and me are objects of the preposition to. It may sound too casual, but it is correct. The way to check is that you would say "It seems to me" and not "It seems to I." This sort of hypercorrect (and erroneous) construction is so common among television reporters that the wrong version has begun to sound correct to us because we hear it so much.

Why, you may well ask yourself, is Michael burdening me with this bit of language esoterica?

Well, it is because I doubt not that I am guilty of hypercorrection myself, but I mention it today because I was a victim in a way.

A friend called to talk to Tom, who was outside mowing. When I offered to get him, the friend said he would call back later. Then he asked how I was.

"I'm fine," I said, brightly.

"Fine!" he snorted. No, seriously, he actually snorted. "That is the lamest, weakest, most non-descriptive word there is! Do you know what fine -- f-i-n-e -- means?"

Knowing him to be a member of a group that is big on "inspirational" acronyms, I cringed inwardly and said, "I imagine it means 'f---d something or other.'"

"Yes! It means 'F---d up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.'"

"Well," I responded politely, '"that could be me."

Then I told him that the reason I said I was fine instead of  good is that my mother has her own Biblical version of linguistic hypercorrection.

When I call her every afternoon, I usually start out by asking how she is.

"I'm okay," she says, sometimes going on to explain that she won't say she is good because in Matthew 19:17 Jesus says, "Only One is good." 

Hypercorrection. Not really the point. Fine, in fact, does not mean whatever little acronym you choose and apply arbitrarily to the speech of people who are not speaking your group's inner code.

 And if we want to become too literal about Jesus and speech, what are we to make of this admonition in the Sermon on the Mount: "All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:37) 

And don't go saying that in the Gospel story, context makes it obvious that Jesus is not saying we should only say yes and no and nothing else ever. This is true, of course, but it is also true that the context of the other verse makes it obvious that Jesus is not saying we must reserve the adjective good only for the Supreme Being. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says that God makes the sun shine on the good and the bad. So he uses it himself for ordinary people.

And now, no doubt, I have hypercorrected my friend and my mother. How tacky is that?