Are you the sort of person who just loves correcting other people’s grammar? Are you sure that you’re doing it right? Some things that people have been taught are rules of English grammar are really not rules at all — and some of them are flat-out wrong.
There’s actually a word for this phenomenon: hypercorrection. It’s what happens when people learn that something that isn’t a rule is a rule.
Now there are plenty of reasons for people to learn about proper English grammar; it can make you a more confident communicator and help you understand the way the language has evolved. But sometimes, when people correct other folks’ grammar in a non-education, non-copyediting situation, they’re not being helpful; they’re asserting their perceived linguistic superiority. And while some who proudly wear the badge of “grammar Nazi” or “grammar police” see themselves as defenders of the language, they’re not really enforcing grammatical rules; they’re reinforcing personal peeves.
I am by no means a grammar expert; I just enjoy reading about grammar. These non-rules are backed up by various grammarians and linguists. You can also feel free to correct my grammar. I figure that if I write a post about grammar, karma dictates that it will contain no fewer than a dozen typographical and grammatical errors.
1. Saying “I am good” when someone asks “How are you?”: This is a funny thing I’ve noticed in my daily life: when I ask someone how they are, that person frequently responds with, “I am [pause] well.” It’s as if they are fighting their natural urge to say “I am good.”
People, it’s ok. We are all good.
English speakers tend to mistakenly correct themselves by saying “I am well” instead of “I am good” because they recognise that “am” is a verb, a form of “to be.” And since it’s a verb, people often figure, you pair it with an adverb (like well), not an adjective (like good). But what these folks are forgetting is that the verb “to be” is a linking verb. Yes, if your main verb is an action verb (such as “to run” or “to see”), then you need to use an adverb, rather than an adjective, to modify it (“I run well.” “He sees poorly.”). But with a linking verb, you are describing your state — good, bad, purple, in a hurry, whatever. The same applies to verbs like “to seem” and “to appear,” and in certain cases to sensing verbs, like “to smell” (“You smell good.” vs. “You smell well.”) and “to feel.” (If you “feel badly,” then you are bad at feeling, but if you “feel bad” then you are describing your state as bad.)
As Mignon Fogarty notes in her entry on “Good Versus Well,” saying “I am good” is actually preferable to saying “I am well” unless you’re speaking specifically about your health. But hopefully, if you are telling people that you are “well,” good health is at least part of what you’re trying to convey.
2. Splitting infinitives: This is a “rule” that you’ll hear about from people from time to time, but that you won’t find in modern style guides. Self-declared grammar sticklers have been tut-tutting split infinitives for decades; in at least one case, it was allegedly discussed in treaty negotiations. But while some English grammarians, notably Henry Alford in his 1864 book The Queen’s English, have argued against splitting infinitives, it is not a rule. In fact, sometimes avoiding a split infinitive is downright awkward. So grammar aficionados need not tear out their hair over the Enterprise’s mission “to boldly go where no man/one has gone before.”
3. Using “over” instead of “more than” to indicate greater numerical value: Here’s the rule that you may have been taught at some point: if you are talking about a quantity of something, then you should use “more than” to describe a greater amount, e.g. “The stables housed more than a thousand horses.” But if you are discussing spatial dimensions, then you should use “over” to discuss greater dimensions, e.g. “The mountain was over 6,096.00m tall.” But perhaps the final the death knell of this distinction sounded just this year when the Associated Press announced a change to the AP Stylebook: “more than” and “over” are now both acceptable ways to indicate greater numerical value. The AP wasn’t exactly on the forefront of the “more than” versus “over” question; many style books had long ago ditched the rule, including the Chicago Manual of Style.
4. Using “preventative” to mean “preventive”: I recall that once, while working for a dog culture magazine, we printed a strongly worded letter to the editor taking us to task for using the word “preventative” in lieu of “preventive.” After that, we eschewed the word “preventative,” and sure, we stopped getting letters about the word, but the change didn’t make us more correct. Now, there are plenty of people who will offer perfectly logical explanations for why they feel “preventive” is more correct than “preventative.” After all, you prevent something; you don’t “preventate” something. And preventive is the more common form in formal writing, at least in North America.
But “preventative” is considered a perfectly acceptable variant of preventive, one that has been in use for centuries. Grammarist notes that preventive/preventative is just one of many -tive/-tative word pairs that remain inconsistently used, no matter how often the head linguistic honchos try to saddle them with rules.
Even though “preventative” is just as correct as “preventive,” many grammarians will counsel readers to avoid “preventative” as a preventive against pinging someone’s pet peeve.
5. Using “that” instead of “who” as a pronoun to refer to a person: I admit, I always thought this was a hard and fast rule. You would say, “That crazy lady who is writing about grammar,” not “That crazy lady that is writing about grammar,” right? I was surprised to read in Patricia T. O’Conner’s grammar primer Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English that either form is correct. Apparently, this is one of this is more a question of style than of rules.
Personally, I’ll continue to favour “who” when referring to people. (Sorry, people whose work I copyedit!) But at least I’ll recognise that it’s a stylistic choice rather than a firm grammatical rule.
6. Using words like “slow” and “quick” as adverbs: Weird Al Yankovic has a series of videos in which he “corrects” street signs that read “Drive Slow” so that they instead read “Drive Slowly.” But, as Mignon Fogarty points out in her swell takedown of the mean-spirited tone of Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video, Weird Al is wrong. “Slow” is what’s known as a flat adverb, meaning that it functions as an adverb despite lacking an -ly ending. Daily Writing Tips has a handy list of flat adverbs and their relationships to corresponding -ly adverbs. In the cases of “slow” and “quick,” the meanings of the flat adverbs are identical to their -ly counterparts, “slowly” and “quickly.”
Here’s Weird Al on a mission to destroy flat adverbs:
Here, in Merriam-Webster’s “Ask the Editor” feature, associate editor Emily Brewster explains that flat adverbs were much more common before 18th-century grammarians insisted that words not ending in -ly were adjectives. She lists a few instances in which flat adverbs have the same meanings as their -ly counterparts and a few instances in which they have different meanings. Flat adverbs are an endangered species, in part because people keep erroneously “correcting” them.
7. Ending a sentence with a preposition: Writing at the Oxford Dictionaries blog, Catherine Soanes refers to the notion that one may not end a sentence with a preposition as “fetish” rather than a rule. And if you’ve ever tried to contort a sentence to avoid ending on a preposition, you might suspect that fetish is linguistic masochism. Like so many rules-that-aren’t-rules, this one gets blamed on Latin-loving English grammarians who thought they could squeeze an English-language peg into a Latin-language hole. Latin infinitives are contained in a single verb; therefore, we must not split infinitives. Latin prepositions must always precede prepositional phrases; therefore, English prepositions must always precede prepositional phrases. Even if you never learned it in school, Latin is still messing with your life.
There’s a cheeky sentence on the matter that is frequently (and apocryphally) attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Soanes offers four examples of when it is perfectly alright (and perhaps even preferable) to end one’s sentence with a preposition:
passive structures (she enjoys being fussed over)
relative clauses (they must be convinced of the commitment that they are taking on)
infinitive structures (Tom had no-one to play with)
questions beginning with who, where, what, etc. (what music are you interested in?)
Fogarty adds that the one case in which you want to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, at least in formal writing, is when the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change when you drop the preposition, e.g. “Where are you going?” instead of “Where are you going to?” But in informal spoken English, you will see such phrases, especially in certain dialects.
8. Treating “data” as singular instead of plural: Remember what I said about Latin screwing with your life? “Data” is a word that makes lots of people unhappy. It comes from the Latin word “datum,” a second declension neuter noun that becomes “data” in the nominative and accusative plural. (Latin has different plurals for different parts of speech.) We’ve inherited a lot of Latin plurals, and many of them we no longer treat as plural: for example, we say “the agenda is” rather than “the agendas are” and “opera” is not the plural of “opus” in English.
In some cases, using “data” as plural is legitimately useful. You’re more likely to encounter “data” as plural in scientific and mathematical writing where you might talk about collecting each individual datum. My 2007 copy of the AP Stylebook uses “The data have been collected,” as an example of a sentence where “data” is being treated as a group of individual items. In that case, “data” is being treated as what we call a “count noun.”
While some style guides will recommend always using data as plural, in daily speech we frequently use data as what’s called a “mass noun,” meaning it has no natural boundary, no individual units that we can count. Charles Carson, managing editor of the journal American Speech, uses “butter” as an example of a mass noun. Sure, you can talk about pats of butter or cups of butter, but when you talk about just butter, you say, “How much butter is in the pie crust?” When using data as a mass noun, it is perfectly standard English to treat it as grammatically singular.
Carson employs this handy rule of thumb:
If you wish to use data as a singular mass noun, you should be able to replace it in the sentence with the word information, which is also a mass noun. For example,
Much of this information is useless because of its lack of specifics.
If, however, you want to or need to use data as a plural count noun, you should be able to replace it with the word facts, which is also a plural count noun. For example,
Many of these facts are useless because of their lack of specifics.
O’Conner deems treating data as a grammatical plural a dead rule, writing, “No plural form is necessary, and the old singular, datum, can be left to the Romans.” She also argues that media should be treated as singular when referring to mass communication and as plural only when referring to individual types of communication.
9. Using “they” as a singular pronoun: I’ve seen more than a few kids’ eyes go wide when you tell them about this particular SAT/ACT rule: when referring to an individual of indeterminate gender, you must use “he or she,” “him or her,” and “his or hers” as your pronouns. But really, this is a style choice. English is imperfect in this regard; we don’t have a singular, generic, gender-netural pronoun that can be applied to a human being. (We don’t, in general, use “it” to describe a person unless we are deliberately dehumanising that person.) In spoken English, many of us use “they” to fill the void as an all-purpose neuter pronoun.
Admittedly, many grammarians don’t love “they” as a singular pronoun. Fogarty admits that she tends to rewrite her sentences to avoid the need for a singular generic pronoun, but that she will use “he or she” in formal writing. O’Conner goes so far as to call it a mistake (for now), though she notes that in earlier centuries, “they” was used as a singular pronoun. (William Shakespeare used “they” as a singular pronoun, but we’re not all Shakespeare.) But some modern English usage guides do list “they” as an acceptable singular pronoun and, in the name of evolving language, Fogarty actually recommends that people writing style guides make “they” an acceptable singular (but only if they are the sorts of people who can get away with such a thing). And with some people who sit outside the gender binary taking “they” are their own preferred personal pronoun, we may be seeing an increasing acceptance (or rather re-acceptance) of “they” as a singular pronoun.
10. Starting a sentence with “hopefully”: This is a pet peeve for a lot of folks who feel that vernacular speech is somehow destroying language. There are people who insist that “hopefully” has one meaning and one meaning only: “in a hopeful manner.” They argue that, in the sentence, “Hopefully, Lauren will stop this inane grammar lesson soon,” that “Lauren” would be stopping “in a hopeful manner.” These folks want to replace our sentence-starting “hopefully” with phrases like “let us hope” or “it is hoped.”
O’Conner writes, “It’s time to admit that hopefully has joined the class of introductory words (life fortunately, frankly, happily, honestly, sadly, seriously, and others) that we use not to describe a verb, which is what adverbs usually do, but to describe our attitude toward the statement that follows.” These words are known as sentence adverbs, modifying the whole sentence rather than just a verb, adjective, or fellow adverb. In 2012, the Associate Press changed its style guidelines to allow writers to start a sentence with “hopefully” to mean “I am hopeful that something will happen.” Hopefully, the sticklers will come around.
Bonus grey area: saying “I could care less.” There are many people who cheered when, on Orange is the New Black, Flaca chewed out Lorna for saying “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less.”
The discussion between Flaca and Piper highlights the differences between prescriptivism (Flaca) and descriptivism (Piper). Now, a lot of folks will roll their eyes at the notion of grammatical descriptivism, saying that’s how we end up with words like “irregardless.” But there’s actually a lot of room for discussion when it comes to “I could care less.”
I confess, I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the ire that “I could care less” attracts. I was raised in “I couldn’t care less” country, but whenever I hear “I could care less,” my brain automatically fills in the words “but not much.” But really, logic is beside the point.
There is no question that “I couldn’t care less” came before “I could care less”; the former was likely invented in Britain in the late 1930s and shows up in print in 1944. “I could care less” isn’t exactly a newcomer to the scene, however. It’s an American phrase, one that pops up in print (in the Washington Post, no less) as early as 1955. No one is quite sure how “couldn’t” became “could,” but while some theorise that the “-n’t” was dropped due to sloppy pronunciation, others wonder if the American version of the phrase was meant to be sarcastic. Either way, “I could care less” has hung around for decades and it’s now classed in the Oxford English Dictionary as an “American colloquialism.” For some folks, it’s just another example of Americans mangling the mother tongue.
Bill Walsh’s essay on the phrase from his book Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk is the best discussion of the phrase I’ve seen, and shows just why “I could care less” sits in such a grey area. Walsh notes that while the haters of “I could care less” tend to argue that theirs is the more logical phrase, when in fact, “I couldn’t care less” is hyperbolic to begin with. He also notes that “I could care less” isn’t in danger of going anywhere. While prescriptivists will tell you to stick with “I couldn’t care less,” especially in formal writing, many will note that the idiom “I could care less” is perfectly fine in informal usage (as when commenting on message boards on the Internet). Logical or not, “I could care less” is on its way toward gaining acceptance as an idiom.
As a side note, here’s the funny thing about “I couldn’t care less”: we’re actually not using the phrase as it was originally intended. According to Christine Ammer, author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “I couldn’t care less” originally expressed “bored indifference” or bravado. So while some sticklers for “I couldn’t care less” believe they are working against changing the phrase, it’s a phrase that has gone through some changes already.
This article has been updated since its original publication.