Monday, March 8, 2010

Hypercorrect Substitutions


I got my morning cuppa joe from a Green Beans Coffee shop at The Great Place on my first day of three weeks in wonderful central Texas. While sipping ... okay, fine ... gulping my java I noticed the sleeve had the following quote:

Myself and many of the Naval sailors I work with have all had your coffee and love it.

The linguist in me couldn't help but notice that this was a beautiful example of hypercorrection(1). I also couldn't help wonder why the simple syntactic test of substitution isn't better understood by the average person. It's such a simple idea, any 6th grader could master it. The idea is that, when faced with a grammar choice you are unsure of, you simply ask yourself, what else could I put in its place and how does that help me make my choice? So, here we have a complex subject (i.e., a subject with two NPs):
  • X and Y have all had your coffee 
Where X refers to the speaker and Y = many of the Naval sailors I work with and the decision is what form of personal pronoun is appropriate for X. If we ask ourselves, what if this were a simple subject composed only of X, what form of the personal pronoun would we chose?
  • I have had my coffee 
  • Myself have had my coffee*
At this point, the decision is quite obvious, isn't it?

But wait! I'm no prescriptivist, Certainly I must have some descriptivist point to make, mustn't I?
But of course I have dahling.  The point that is so interesting is that this choice is made automatically by our human language system in ways that are, really, quite baffling. Exactly what is going on under the hood here is remarkably interesting. Jeff Runner did lots of really cool psycholinguistics stuff with reflexives and Barbie dolls, once upon a time, but I couldn't find anything freely available (shame on you Jeff, gimme free stuff!). But the point is that most people are confused by reflexives. They're weird little beasts (and they only got weirder when Ken and Barbie got involved).

(1) Try as I might, the search function over at Language Log quite thoroughly stymied me when I searched for hypercorrection and hyper-correction, though I'm quite certain the folks at LL have posted about it a non-trivial number of times.  C'est la vie.

2 comments:

Q. Pheevr said...

I don't think this is necessarily a hypercorrection; I think the choice of the reflexive form actually serves some pragmatic/discourse function (though I'd be hard-pressed to say exactly what). I'd call it a logophor, although the name by itself doesn't really explain anything.

Chris said...

Q. Pheevr, good point about logophor, and nice use of Everything2 linking! You get bonus points.