to be hypercorrect is not the same as to be correct

February 24, 2009


“See, it says here…”

Since his election, the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers for using “I” instead of “me” in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “the main disagreement with John and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.”

If I’d known this I’d surely have been among those bloggers. But because I’m in London, and a “holiday American” (that is, I rarely go even there on holiday), to be honest I didn’t know the new Leader of the Free World did that thing.

Speaking of getting it right in public speaking, GW Bush did make me laugh every time he said “nucular.” But that just underlines why Obama should try and get it right. The New York Times article itself troubled me while I was reading it, as it almost seemed to be saying it was okay to talk like this, because Shakespeare himself used to do it. Apparently there is an instance of it in The Merchant of Venice. I had my riposte half written.

This is because, guys, it can never be okay. The reason why this is the case is that we are not living in the time of Shakespeare. (Surprise!) Even though it was only in (what the NYT calls) the 1800s that “people started kvetching” about this usage, which I suppose makes it still relatively recent, the point is that we are living after the 1800s, and usage has changed since then… but you see… no one needed me to say all that.

In 1869 the usage was even featured in a book called Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech.

As to “scofflaws” like the new president, it is easily explained. There is a linguistic term for their condition, which is based on childhood trauma:

…they were scolded as children for saying things like “Me want candy” instead of “I want candy,” so they began to think “I” was somehow more socially acceptable. Or maybe it’s because they were admonished against “it’s me.” Anybody who’s had “it is I” drummed into his head is likely to avoid “me” on principle, even when it’s right. The term for this linguistic phenomenon is “hypercorrection.”

Because even the Victorians wanted you to think about what you were saying – and why – before you followed some cockamamy rule.

The other day there was an article in the Guardian, I forget what it as now, with a standfirst that ended: “but for who?”

I’ll get the campaign van ready.


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