Friday, 3 June 2011


At some point early on in his infant life our elder son clearly believed that the adults around him were just being lazy when they said "massive" (as in "a massive truck"), because he used to say "a mass of truck", substituting what he perceived to be our "lazy" ive with his more precise and well-articulated of.

He was unwittingly committing a linguistic “offence” called hypercorrection – the phenomenon of erroneously correcting something that wasn’t wrong in the first place.

Some adults do it too. Two examples come to mind: the pronunciation (or writing) of gamut as gambit, and of gist as just. (The pronunciation of gist with a g as in gate is incorrect, by the way – it has to be g as in cage.)

If someone does this, it can only be because he/she is unaware of the fact that the words in the respective pairs are different words that are supposed to be pronounced differently. Gamut is presumably mistaken for a lazy version of gambit, and so a b is erroneously inserted after the m to “correct” the perceived sloppy pronunciation. Gist is probably mistaken for a lazy pronunciation of just, and the hypercorrector “corrects” it accordingly.

Hypercorrection does not occur only in relation to pronunciation. The erroneous use of the pronoun I in a sentence like “It’s happened to my wife and I before” illustrates this well. Having had it drummed into them at school that they should say “My friend and I went there”, not “My friend and me went there”, some people hypercorrect by using I when me would be correct after all – in the earlier example it should be “It's happened to my wife and me.” (This subject was discussed in an earlier two-part post titled “Oh deary I! Problems with pronouns”, 1 April 2011.)

Hypercorrection may also occur across language boundaries. To mention only one example: an Afrikaans speaker who may have become aware of the need to aspirate initial h and not, for example, to pronounce Hugh as “you”, might well hypercorrect and then incorrectly pronounce you as “Hugh”, with the first sound aspirated. –ws

No comments: