When Being 'Correct' Can Lead to a Wreck

Rob Kyff on

A newspaper reporter recently wrote that an Edgar Degas exhibit was "up for fewer than 10 days."

I don't know much about art, but I know what I dislike -- hypercorrection. The reporter knew that "fewer" should be used with countable items, e.g., "fewer paintings," but he applied this precept where it didn't belong. Because time is considered to be a lump-sum amount, not a collection of countable items, he should have written "less than 10 days."

A writer or speaker who conscientiously strives to follow a grammatical rule but applies it in the wrong situation has committed the sin of -- gasp! - hypercorrection. Here are some common examples:

-- "Between you and I": When we were kids and said, "You and me went to the store," our parents scolded, "You and I!" Thanks to this rigorous indoctrination, we're often tempted to say "you and I" even when the objective case is required ("between you and me").

-- "It's an issue about which we were concerned": Because we were taught never to end a sentence with a preposition, many of us go to extreme lengths to avoid doing it. This produces some terribly clumsy contraptions. In this case, the crisp sentence, "It's an issue we were concerned about" would suffice. Winston Churchill once wryly described the banning of sentence-ending prepositions as "arrant pedantry up with which I will not put."

-- "Each candidate is plotting publicly to embarrass the other": The writer of this sentence is trying so hard to follow the misguided dictum, "Never split an infinitive" that the meaning is muddied. What is being done publicly -- the plotting or the embarrassing? Splitting the infinitive -- "Each candidate is plotting to publicly embarrass the other" -- makes it clear.


-- "A small percentage of athletes is involved": We all know the rule that the number of the subject is not affected by an intervening prepositional phrase. But this rule doesn't apply to certain nouns, such as "number," "variety" and "percentage." Though technically singular, these nouns are followed by a plural verb: "A small percentage of athletes are involved."

-- "Whom shall I say is calling?": We've all heard snooty butlers say this in movies, but in fact, this sentence is grammatically incorrect. The clause "shall I say" is parenthetical; "who/m" is not the object of "say." In essence, the sentence is asking, "Who is calling?" so it should be, "Who shall I say is calling?"

Who's calling? It's me! (You can ditch the hypercorrect "It's I," too.)


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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