10 types of errors writers make when trying to fix copy

Hypercorrection: It’s the verbal equivalent of the cure being worse than the disease.

Well-meaning writers and editors sometimes mangle the language they’re trying to manage—a fault called hypercorrection. Errors of this class are the result either of adherence to a spurious superstition about proper form, a misunderstanding about a point of grammar, or an attempt to fit a square idiom into a round pigeonhole.

Here’s a list of some categories of hypercorrection:

1. “A number of” followed by a singular verb

Occasionally, a superficial understanding of what constitutes proper grammar leads writers to create a disagreeable subject/verb agreement such as, “A number of members is supporting reform.” But longstanding idiom trumps strict correctness: “A number of members are supporting reform” is correct, because the focus is on the members, not on the proportion of them supporting reform. The same commonsense rule holds for handful, majority, and similar terms.

2. As in place of like

Writers averse to like as an alternative to “such as” are also prone to replace like with as in such sentences as “He charges as a bull.” “He charges as a bull would do” is correct but stilted; the shorter form implies, “He charges in the capacity of a bull,” rather than, “He charges in the manner of a bull.” What’s not to like about like?

3. Double adverbs

Avoid the urge to append an -ly ending to an adverb that doesn’t require it. Flat adverbs do just fine without the suffix, and so do doubtless, much, seldom, thus, and others.

4. Foreign articles preceding foreign terms

When a noun phrase is temporarily borrowed from another language, writers might be tempted to precede it with an article from that language, as in “At the countess’s wedding, she served as la fille d’honneur” (“maid of honor”). The term alone merits both the emphasis of italicization and the retention of the other language’s form: “At the countess’s wedding, she served as the fille d’honneur.”

5. I substituted for the object me

Some people, when they learn that the object in such constructions as “You and me are the same height” and “Me and John are the candidates” should read “You and I are the same height” and “John and I are the candidates,” generalize that me is an undesirable pronoun, even when used in a sentence’s subject, but “There’s no difference in height between you and me” and “The candidates are John and me,” unlike the sentence versions ending in the word I, are perfectly correct.

6. Latin plurals formed incorrectly

The plural forms of words derived from Latin that end in -us are -uses or -i. Sometimes, the -uses ending is preferred over the alternative (for example, octopuses); sometimes, the reverse is true (as with foci); and sometimes only one form is correct (prospectuses). When in doubt, check the dictionary. When not in doubt, double-check anyway.

7. Prepositions prevented from ending a sentence

Despite admonitions from numerous sources, including a previous post on this site, to ignore the pedantic prohibition against sentence-ending prepositions, some writers, in order to adhere to this fallacious “rule,” persist in uncomfortably trussing sentences up. For example, “What did you do that for?” need not be twisted into “For what reason did you do that?” One could easily write, “Why did you do that?” but that kind of cleanup is not always a viable alternative.

8. Unsplit compound verbs

There is a curious misunderstanding about compound verbs—phrases consisting of an auxiliary verb (a form of “to be”) and another verb—analogous to the spurious “rule” about infinitives discussed below: Some writers mistakenly believe that adverbs should not be inserted between one verb and another, but that syntax is preferable. Nevertheless, they prefer the clumsy construction, “They quietly were calling her name,” to the perfectly acceptable wording, “They were quietly calling her name.”

9. Unsplit infinitives

The persistent belief that the elements of an infinitive—to followed by a verb—should not be separated by an adverb can result in an ambiguous sentence, such as “I was preparing quickly to depart,” which could mean “I was hurrying to prepare to depart” or I was preparing to depart hurriedly”—which are not the same thing. The former meaning should be expressed “I was quickly preparing to depart” and the latter should be written “I was preparing to quickly depart” (yes, it’s acceptable to separate infinitives with an adverb) or “I was preparing to depart quickly.”

10. Whom in place of who

The troublesome pronoun whom entangles many writers, not only at the head of a sentence but also when leading off a subordinate clause, as in the erroneous example, “The top vote-getter is Smith, whom Jones knows is a poor choice.” Whom, here, is not the object of knows; it is the subject of is, and who is the correct companion of a linking verb.

A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.com.


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