The Grammarphobia Blog

When too right is too wrong

Q: Do you know if there’s a word for incorrect grammar used in a mistaken attempt to sound erudite? For example: “This esteemed group has earned the most profound gratitude of Mrs. Watson and myself.” Thanks very much for any assistance you can provide.

A: You’re looking for the word “hypercorrection.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as “A construction or pronunciation produced by mistaken analogy with standard usage out of a desire to be correct, as in the substitution of I for me in on behalf of my parents and I.”

Another example would be “The car is available to whomever wants to use it.” I had a blog item last year about still another example, involving “fewer” and “less.”

In fact, the title of my grammar book Woe Is I is a case in point. As I explain in the preface to the second edition, the book’s title hints that it’s even possible to be too correct:

“While ‘Woe Is I’ may appear technically correct (and that’s a matter of opinion), the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit – or an author trying to make a point – would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”

As for mistakenly using “myself” when “I” or “me” would be correct, I had a blog item about this two and a half years ago.

The adjective “hypercorrect” is relatively new, apparently less than a century old. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922), by the grammarian and linguist Otto Jespersen.

The nouns “hypercorrection” and “hypercorrectness” made their appearances 12 years later. A 1934 citation in the OED says that “only by unceasing vigilance” can such grammatical sins be avoided by those prone to being too correct.

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