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Vocab Lab: The Myself Generation

Have you noticed people saying myself when, as far as you're concerned, they really should be saying me? It seems to have become an epidemic.

Why do the folks in question feel compelled to say things like, "Mollie called Simon and myself to see if we wanted to go to the 4:20 showing of Pineapple Express"? Maybe it's because they've decided myself sounds more correct, more elevated, than plain ol' me. This may also account for the boneheads out there saying, "Can you come with Simon and I to the 4:20 showing of Pineapple Express?" (You and I know it should be "Simon and me.") Maybe it's because me sounds too self-involved — "me me me" — and myself is considered more modest. Maybe it's because you're in law enforcement and you've signed an oath that requires you to say individual instead of person, vehicle instead of car, and myself instead of me.

Whatever the reason, I don't care for it. In fact, until about 10 minutes ago, I dismissed these people as fools — fools, I tell you! I felt myself was special and that its poetic juice should not be diluted by making it synonymous with the prosaic me. So, to further my agenda, I did what any self-righteous stickler does: I went to Merriam-Webster.com.

At first, I was heartened by what I saw:

  1. that identical one that is I — used reflexively "I'm going to get myself a new suit," for emphasis "I myself will go," or in absolute constructions "myself a tourist, I nevertheless avoided other tourists."
  2. my normal, healthy, or sane condition "didn't feel myself yesterday."

Then I came across this: "Usage: Myself is often used where I or me might be expected: as subject, 'to wonder what myself will say' (Emily Dickinson)." "Exactly," I thought. "Who wants to go around sounding like Emily Dickinson?" My self-satisfaction began to crumble, however, when I read the subsequent example: "Others and myself continued to press for the legislation." Hmm.

Next I encountered:

  • after as, than, or like "an aversion to paying such people as myself to tutor"; "was enough to make a better man than myself quail"; "old-timers like myself."
  • as object "now here you see myself with the diver"; "for my wife and myself it was a happy time."
Followed by the news: "Such uses almost always occur when the speaker or writer is referring to himself or herself as an object of discourse rather than as a participant in discourse."

What? Didn't you mean to say, dear M-W, "Such uses almost always occur when the speaker or writer IS WRONG?" At which point reality smacked me in the face like an errant mackerel. I had to ask myself: Could I myself have been wrong about this? Me, wrong?! And if so, as it surely seemed, how had I, of all people, gotten it into my head that myself was an incorrect substitute for me?

Finally, the coup de grĂ¢ce: "Critics have frowned on these uses since about the turn of the century [phew, I thought, but then], probably unaware that they serve a definite purpose. Users themselves are as unaware as the critics — they simply follow their instincts. These uses are standard."

Serve a definite purpose, eh? Standard, you say. Fine. I'll just have to chalk this, too, up to the evolution of the language and try to unbunch my panties. Again. Don't you hate it when something you were so sure was absolutely wrong is reduced to the status of pet peeve? When you yourself have been reduced to an unaware critic? I know, right? If this has happened to you, please share. I'm thinking of starting a support group.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 22nd 2008, 3:01 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Count me in as one of your supporters! I dislike the overuse of the reflexive pronoun. It especially aggravates me when a pompous, self-proclaimed erudite broadcaster on my favourite radio station uses yourself, and myself in every other sentence! I was hoping I could send him your article when I read the intro.... Maybe we could do a little more research....
Monday September 22nd 2008, 8:13 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I liked the article. Self-deprecation is an attractive stance.
But I still have a problem with the use of "grow" as a verb. It still grates on the nerves of my proper English sensibilities!
Monday September 22nd 2008, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
This was a fun article, people. Thanks!

I think the principle that we need to acknowledge, however reluctantly, is that a lot of things are acceptable in normal conversation that we wouldn't use in our writing. The only thing that makes any language usage right or wrong is how it affects people. I believe that the real test is for appropriate grammatical structures that they never call attention to themselves.

...and, by that standard, the alternate uses of the reflexive pronouns in any of the instances where no reflexive idea is present, just seems so wrong. Emily Dickinson can get away with it, but I don't know any Emily Dickinsens.

Have you noticed, however, that the distinctions between the transitive "lay" and intransitive "lie" have gone by the board? At least here in N. California. We can say "I'm going to go LAY down" and nobody thinks a thing.

...and the subjective (nominative) use of "I" in sentences with any form of the verb "to be" is completely gone. I wouldn't use "I" in the sentence "Don't bother looking for a culprit; it was me," even in my magazine. The nominative "I" in those cases just seem wrong to the modern ear.

...just my opinion.
Monday September 22nd 2008, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I wasted no time reading the entire article hoping to reaffirm my own stance on this issue. Alas, like so many other rules, it apparently no longer applies. It is true that things evolve over time. Perhaps I have personally evolved to a point where I am out of step wherever I dare to tread. It is clear that I must now be a Little Old Lady because I bite my tongue rather than begin any sentence with the words, "We learned in school that..."
Monday September 22nd 2008, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Kari C. (Red Lodge, MT)
Okay, but what's up with the "I know, right?" Really?? Where does this come from, what does it mean, and why on earth is every living person I know using it relentlessly? WTF? Really.
Monday September 22nd 2008, 1:51 PM
Comment by: Caterina F.
Thank you for the article! I am thankful for the validation as well as the opportunity to forward this to my colleagues as a fun "non-work" article, when really I'm endeavoring to assist them in the elimination of incorrect speech. Its selfish, really. In my personal experience, it is as dissonant as a sour note on the trombone to hear someone say "Would you like to have dinner with Gertrude and I?" Ugh.
Now, would someone like to help me with my addiction to commas? My usage is beyond superfluous.
Monday September 22nd 2008, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
There is a grammatical logic that seems to apply to the use of 'me' rather than 'I' in the case mentioned.

If you have a phrase construction with 'he and I' or 'him and I', take out the 'he and' or 'him and' and see if 'I' or 'me' would be correct.

That's the way I used to present it to students.

About 'myself', I can see some instances, when the reflexive pronoun is useful, but for stress. I think that's why it's called a 'reflexive' pronoun.

I do believe that the dictionary seems to have fallen to the enemy in the examples given. The experts compiling it are probably so tired of hearing 'myself' used in place of 'I' or 'me', that they've just come to accept it.

I can see the point of language evolving.

However, in this case, we are losing the effectiveness of that word as a stressor.

And in the case of 'I' instead of 'me', we are not insisting on appropriate grammar for the occasion -- every occasion in my book, but at the very least, in serious discussion or educated conversation (if conversation can be educated).

'Lie' and 'lay' is a problem for me, too. I did manage to teach it. And accompanied it with a lot of oral work.

But when you hear all those quarterbacks laying on the field, and you see no chickens anywhere, it gets hard to make that old argument.

"Oh, are you a goose?" might be an appropriate response to: I'm going to lay down.

I did enjoy the article. I hope we don't give up the fight.

There are groups out there who mail stickers to editors or writers who misuse the language that 'we experts' are trying to maintain in pristine condition!

I do think, and this is a serious comment, that children could still be taught correct standard usage, and learn how it is different from non-standard. If the use of those terms doesn't apply, then just logic or simplicity should.

How much effort could be saved if all the incorrect 'myselves' remained unuttered!

Would it not make us a 'greener' society?
Monday September 22nd 2008, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Dale P. (Portland, OR)
Great piece.

While I have to agree that things change, and language is not an exception, I'll forever be lead to the water of the language-lazy grammarians only accompanied by much dragging, kicking and screaming. And even then I'll refuse to drink. When I get an internal memo that states "The meeting will start at 10:00, please be prompt", it still strikes me as strange. Sure, those that don't care to dwell in the details don't concern themselves with the inexact, and eventually we'll all just walk around pointing and grunting. unkk unk ook meet start now. [and don't you hate it when people hyphenate unkk-unk! It drives me up the wall...]
Monday September 22nd 2008, 4:15 PM
Comment by: colin M.
I think the main reason people get into the habit of using "myself" is uncertainty about whether to use "I" or "me."

They default to "myself."
Monday September 22nd 2008, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Matt P. (Washington, NJ)
I agree, Colin M. This is the same phenomenon that results in the widespread usage of monstrosities like "between you and I".
Monday September 22nd 2008, 6:00 PM
Comment by: Judy W.
We must remember we are dealing with persons who must take remedial reading in college and the number of these persons increases each year. I left an area of the country where the plural of you is youse and "I aint' got none of them" is the norm. shudder shudder.
Saturday October 11th 2008, 1:17 PM
Comment by: polymath
I cringe when I recognize the illiteracy of english usage by TV-news commentators and others that speak professionally in some capacity. You would think they would have (or at least want to have) a handle on the mechanics of their trade.
In tutoring an hispanic couple english as a second language, we delved into two workbooks, Easy Grammar and Easy Writing, written by Wanda C. Phillilps. With mastery in mind, they learned to speak english very well and together we learned the rules behind correct usage. By mastering the relationship between the eight parts of speech, we now know why and when to use an appropriate pronoun, preposition, or irregular verb. However, the usage of who/whom, affect/effect, lie/lay, rise/raise, and sit/set still require some mental wrangling. If in doubt, look it up. The problem at hand is that most of us don't question the linguistics behind what we are trying to communicate.
Sunday October 26th 2008, 12:50 PM
Comment by: polymath
Help,
I recently came across a sentence in a Wikipedia article.
"When she pointed out that a certain male coworker in a position of less responsibility than herself was being paid more," she .....

Is the subject "she" the antecedent for the reflexive pronoun, "herself"?
or should the pronoun "her" have been used.
Please explain.
Thanks,
Polymath
Sunday October 26th 2008, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Polymath: The general rule is that a reflexive pronoun is used to refer back to a noun or pronoun within the same clause. In the example you gave, "herself" is buried deep inside a subordinate object clause ("that a certain male coworker...was being paid more"), but "she" is in the main clause. So there's no need for a reflexive pronoun here -- "her" is fine to use according to standard English grammar.

However, many people do end up using this so-called " untriggered reflexive" because it appears after than. Check out my followup, " More Musings on 'Myself'" for some reasons for this. (One possible rationale is that the writer was unsure whether to use "her" or "she" after "than" and plumped for "herself" as a safe alternative.)
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 6:04 PM
Comment by: Mike G.
My goodness! What, I ask me, am myself to do with this article? Do you like myself when I sing "Myself and my shadow...." and tap dance gracefully to myself's left?
Friday January 9th 2009, 5:41 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I was hoping when I saw this article that I would forward it to all my violating colleagues with a maniacal laugh of vindication. Damn you, Merriam-Webster, damn you! I've always assumed that, like most other languages, the reflexive pronoun in English existed only for the grammatical purpose of a reflexive action. I smacks of pretension to use it other wise.
Friday January 9th 2009, 1:33 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Use myself when referring to self as an object -- got it...maybe *G*!
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 9:41 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
YOUSE!! Unbelievable.

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