Hypercorrection is the correction of a perceived error based on a misunderstanding of a grammatical rule. In trying to be uber-grammatically correct, people unknowingly make grammatical faux pas. For example, you might be tempted to call the dude who works at your local Starbucks a “baristo,” but you’d be wrong. “Barista” is Italian for bartender, and it’s a gender-neutral word.
One of the most common hypercorrections is substituting “I” for “me,” even when it’s incorrect. Using “me” in the subject of a sentence is a hallmark of an uneducated speaker, as in the sentence “Him and me went to the store.” It should, of course, be “He and I went to the store.”
The problem occurs when the speaker becomes paranoid about using “me” in the object of a sentence, too. For example, “The trip to Catalina was a real treat for her and I.” This is incorrect; it should be “her and me.” When in doubt, try breaking the subject or object into two parts and testing them both. “They gave Martin and I an honorary doctorate” becomes “They gave Martin an honorary doctorate” (sounds good!) and “They gave I an honorary doctorate” (sounds awful; change it!).
We’re told from an early age never to end a sentence with a preposition. In an effort to avoid making this mistake, sentences get twisted into the syntactical equivalent of Twister: “What did you do that for?” becomes “For what did you do that?” The thing is, it’s not actually wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. As George Orwell wrote in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Well, a statement as convoluted as “there are some things up with which I will not put” is certainly barbarous.
Although you might twist a sentence into a pretzel for humorous effect (as in “Go back from whence you came!”), it’s generally okay to let your prepositions hang out at the ends of your sentences. However, extraneous prepositions can usually be cut. In the following examples, the extra prepositions don’t contribute to the meaning of the sentence:
“Find me a bridge to jump off of.”
“Where are you at?”
Another common hypercorrection is using “whom” instead of “who.” “Whom” is often perceived as a more formal choice, but, as with “I” and “me,” it isn’t a question of how fancy the word sounds. “Who” and “I” belong in the subject of a sentence; “whom” and “me” belong in the object. If you’re not sure, here’s a really easy trick to figure out which one to use: Replace “who” with “he” and “whom” with “him”; if your sentence still makes sense, then you’re in the clear.
Try it out with this sentence: “Who/whom took the last Pop Tart?”
The same principle applies to “whoever/whomever” and the more archaic “whosoever/whomsoever,” as in Vincent Price’s “Thriller” monologue: Whosoever shall be found/Without the soul for getting down. There are times, however, when the grammatically correct option is not necessarily the most appropriate choice. Consider the song “Who Do You Love?” Technically, it should be “Whom Do You Love?” but it’s difficult to imagine Jim Morrison or George Thorogood rocking out to that lyric.
Knowing your audience is crucial to deciding how formal you need to be. A cover letter, grant proposal, or academic paper are very formal documents, but an email to a friend or even narration in a novel are much more relaxed.