Why do some people insist on obscure language rules?
John Larrysson Column

An American English speaking teacher taught her students to spell the word 'among' according to what she said was the original correct British English spelling, 'amoung'. This is not the British English spelling! It looks like a misspelling for 'among' and it is. Modern England does not use this spelling. Also my handy historical dictionary lists 15 old spellings for 'among', but 'amoung' is not one of them. Even if this spelling was historical, it would still be wrong.

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Long ago, English used to have many spellings for words when everyone spelt words the way they said them. One of the innovations of Early Modern English was to standardise spelling. The whole point was that if we all agree on one spelling then it is easier to read what other people wrote. The correct spelling is the one that almost everyone uses.

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Last week I discussed someone who insisted on correcting others using a false rule about 'cannot' vs. 'can not'. Why do some people insist on obscure and difficult language rules? (Unlike me, I teach the simplest and clearest way I can!) These include spellings and grammar rules contradicted by all good publishers. It is because they enjoy using their personal and individual understanding of the English language to 'correct' other people. This action makes them feel powerful and better than other people. These self-described language and grammar experts enjoy making other people look foolish. Corrections of this kind are an error called hypercorrection; it means that something is corrected to the point of becoming an error.

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People who like being a powerful grammar expert usually ignore how most of the English-speaking world uses the language. They tend to be people who do not have to correct piles of student compositions; if they did they would likely become more forgiving. The English language has never been strict. Throughout history English has changed by simplifying its grammar rules to become easier. It has also changed by blending with other languages to create other complicated messes. Correct English is what people use to communicate with each other.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.