Mmmm. I’ve been copyediting a manuscript this morning that the editor has gone to the trouble to print out in nice large Courier New, and I’m munching on cookies the editor also sent. Talk about your ideal working conditions….:-)
But I have a grammar post that’s just pecking at my brain, wanting to get out and down on pixels.
It started percolating when we went to a nice restaurant the other day, and the waiter, trying to be fancy and correct, asked me, “Does your food taste well?” I of course smiled and assured him it was wonderful, but it got me to thinking about the whole issue of hypercorrection, because that’s what that type of grammatical error is called: He’d been taught that it was incorrect to use “good” in a sentence such as “Was your food prepared good?” and he then interpreted that rule to mean that “good” just shouldn’t be used in that position at all.
Hypercorrection is one of the most common mistakes I see good writers make–just not usually with the “good”/”well” distinction. :-)
One common hypercorrection I do see, though, takes two different forms: both based on avoiding the words ” and me” (or “me and”). It’s very natural, when we’re children, to use “me” in the subject position–”Me and Jimmy saw some aliens”–where it’s incorrect, and we’ve all been “taught out” of that at some point in our lives. Often, though, the lesson takes hold too hard, and writers tend to think that “and me” is not okay even when it’s in the object position, where it’s actually correct. Thus you end up with hypercorrections such as “Those aliens abducted Jimmy and I.”
Writers who have gotten past that particular hypercorrection sometimes end up with a slightly higher-level hypercorrection of that same construction. They look at that sentence and say, “No, the “I” isn’t correct there, but “me” just doesn’t sound right. It must be “myself”: ˜Those aliens abducted Jimmy and myself.”
And, well…that isn’t right either. The correct sentence really is “The aliens abducted Jimmy and me.” “Myself” is a reflexive pronoun–it reflects back on the subject of the sentence. To be correct, then, the subject should be “I.” You can say “I almost peed on myself in fear” but not “But then the aliens fixed Jimmy and myself an octopus sandwich.” Sometimes, though less commonly, you’ll even see writers hypercorrect to use “myself” in the subject position: “Jimmy and myself spat those sandwiches right into the eyes of one purple-spotted alien and started running.”
So the unnecessary avoidance of “and me” is one of the hypercorrections I see writers make. Another one–and it’s probably the most common grammatical error I see good writers make–is the use of subjunctive when the sense of the sentence doesn’t call for it. We were all taught, at some point, that subjunctive is used for statements contrary to fact: “If I were an alien, I’d have the sense to give people some decent food!” The problem arises, because of that, when writers assume that any statement introduced by “if” requires subjunctive, when in fact many statements don’t, because the “if” sometimes indicates a condition or a contingency instead of something contrary to fact. Thus, “We looked back to see if that purple-spotted alien were behind us” would be another hypercorrection; you should have “was” in that sentence, because there’s nothing contrary to fact going on (well, except for the aliens that showed up in chapter 12, but hey…;-)).
Now if such hypercorrections occur in dialogue, a good copyeditor will figure out a) what the author is doing intentionally and b) what the author doesn’t actually know. A copyeditor really shouldn’t go mucking about with grammar in dialogue very much at all, because you want dialogue to sound as natural as possible. However, I can usually tell by the end of my first read whether an author knows one of these particular rules or not by how consistent they are in hypercorrecting; if every character in a book speaks the same way–and if there isn’t a good reason for them all to speak the same way, such as an isolated village with no outsiders and little socioeconomic distinction–I may query the author about what’s actually desired. When Jimmy turns out to be the kid’s forty-year-old stepfather who has a Ph.D. in English, you may not want him saying “If the alien were following, we couldn’t tell, but the boy and myself found our way out and jumped back into the cornfield from whence they’d abducted he and I.” :-)
I'm a freelance copyeditor specializing in fantasy and science fiction. SF/F novels I have copyedited have been finalists for (and have sometimes won) the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Endeavour, Golden Spur, John W. Campbell Memorial, Quill, Locus, Philip K. Dick, British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards. In 2007 I became the first and only copyeditor ever short-listed for a World Fantasy Award.