Bending over backward to be wrong

As the term 'prestige construction' hints, hypercorrection is intimately bound up with issues of social class.

'My Fair Lady' stars Lauren Ambrose (r.) and Harry Hadden-Paton (l.).
Courtesy of Joan Marcus

My daughter was studying for a grammar test and asked me for advice: Is the following sentence correct? “Instead of you and I, this year Albert and his date are going to be in charge of plans for the picnic.” My instinct was to say no, it should be “instead of you and me.” But then I thought about the context, my daughter learning tricky grammar, for an exam – surely it must be more complicated. I decided that the subject pronouns “you and I” must be right, because they parallel “Albert and his date,” the subjects of the sentence. Actually, the correct answer is “you and me.” Because the pronouns are objects of a preposition (“instead of”), they must be in the objective (me, him, her, us, etc.) case. I had hypercorrected and gotten it wrong.

Hypercorrection happens when a person overapplies the rules of grammar, spelling, or pronunciation. Young children generally develop an excellent sense of what sorts of constructions are “right” in their native language. Hypercorrection tends to occur in two circumstances: when speakers of a dialect, who have internalized slightly different rules, employ the “standard” language, and when people use what linguists call “prestige constructions,” the sort of grammar learned in school but rarely encountered in everyday life. The cockney dialect of London, for example, drops “H’s” (Eliza Doolittle’s “ ’ampshire” and  “ ’urricane”). Cockney speakers know there is a “pronounce H’s” rule in standard English but sometimes overapply it, saying “h-ouse” and “H-ampshire,” but also “h-eir” and “h-onor.” 

My difficulties with my daughter’s question are an example of confusion over a prestige construction. Though in many dialects of English it is normal to say “Him and me went to the grocery store,” most of us know that in standard English, we say “He and I.” We extrapolate from this that the subject form of these pronouns is somehow more formal, and more “correct” all the time, which leads us to favor them when we are pushed out of our linguistic comfort zone. 

As the term “prestige construction” hints, hypercorrection is intimately bound up with issues of social class. Easy mastery of this sort of grammar seems to show that you are an educated person. Many people thus don’t look kindly on hypercorrection, assuming it reveals that you are trying to be something you are not. Anthropologist William O’Barr has studied this phenomenon in the language of trial witnesses and found that those who did a lot of it were thought to be less “convincing” and “competent.” 

Between you and me – or as Shakespeare says, “between you and I” – I think we should be charitable when people hypercorrect.

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