Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
More Musings on "Myself"
Yesterday we heard from contributors Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner about a pattern they identify as an "epidemic": using the word myself in place of a plain old personal pronoun like I or me. They were disheartened to see Merriam-Webster's treatment of this use of myself as no big deal, writing, "Don't you hate it when something you were so sure was absolutely wrong is reduced to the status of pet peeve?" I wanted to flesh out the myself story, since it's been a point of contention for generations of grammarians and usage mavens.
Though the usage notes on Merriam-Webster.com, derived from the dictionary's latest Collegiate edition, are a good starting place when investigating something like myself-for-me, there's a much more in-depth reference work from the same publisher that I highly recommend: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, or MWDEU to its friends. (There's also a slightly cheaper concise edition in paperback, but why not go for the whole enchilada?) MWDEU will give you the historical background on just about any point of usage you might be wondering about. Let's see how it deals with myself.
For starters, the entry points out that a long line of language commentators have had a beef with myself when it appears beyond its conventional use as a reflexive pronoun (e.g., I made myself a sandwich) or as an intensifier added to highlight I or me (e.g., I made the sandwich myself). Using myself where I or me would work perfectly well has been identified as incorrect as far back as 1881, in The Verbalist by Alfred Ayres. Since then, the usage has faced a steady barrage of criticism, though MWDEU notes that observers can't seem to agree on what exactly is wrong about it:
Two general statements can be made about what these critics say concerning myself: first, they do not like it, and second, they do not know why. An index to their uncertainty can be found in the list of descriptors that they have variously attached to the practice: snobbish, unstylish, self-indulgent, self-conscious, old-fashioned, timorous, colloquial, informal, formal, nonstandard, incorrect, mistaken, literary, and unacceptable in formal written English.
Part of the problem is that myself gets plugged in as a replacement for I or me in many different ways, and people's judgments of their acceptability may vary widely. MWDEU points out that one grammatical context, using myself on its own as the subject of a sentence (in place of I), rarely appears outside of poetry:
- Myself hath often overheard them say.
—Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, 1594
- Somehow myself survived the night.
—Emily Dickinson, poem, 1871
As Simon and Julia wrote, "Who wants to go around sounding like Emily Dickinson?" Few do, apparently, but other uses of myself show up much more often in written and spoken English. It can appear as part of a compound subject:
- The Dewas party and myself got out at a desolate station.
—E.M. Forster, The Hill of Devi, 1953
- No longer were Price, Buchanan, and myself part of the innermost circle.
—William Safire, Before the Fall, 1974
Or it can be part of a compound object or predicate:
- The company was...Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr. Burney, Dr. Johnson, and myself.
—James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791
- He said with a smile, "You Unitarians" — meaning Ted Sorensen and myself — "keep writing Catholic speeches."
—Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in Life, 1965
It can appear after as, than, or like in a comparative fashion:
- I think few persons have a greater disgust for plagiarism than myself.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1857
- Like myself, she was vexed at his getting married.
—Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 1903
And finally it can appear as the object of a preposition:
- So much for my patient — now for myself.
—Jane Austen, letter, 1798
- There are also two captions for Hokinson, one by myself and one by my secretary.
—James Thurber, letter, 1948
You can judge for yourself which uses of myself sound acceptable or unacceptable, and which fall in a gray area somewhere in between. Personally, I don't mind myself too much when it appears at the end of a list of names, as in Safire's "Price, Buchanan, and myself" or Boswell's "Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr. Burney, Dr. Johnson, and myself." (Linguists call these "coordinate structures.") It also sounds relatively fine to me when the speaker or writer is making a comparison to someone or something else, especially after than, as when John McCain speaks of "serving a cause greater than myself."
There's no question, however, that myself sometimes gets used by those who think it sounds "more correct, more elevated than plain ol' me," to quote Simon and Julia. Arnold Zwicky on Language Log has noted that "people like me" appears more frequently than "people like myself," but "people such as myself" appears more frequently than "people such as me." He argues that this is because such as is a more "upscale" alternative to like, and so the fancier-sounding myself is a better match for it. There does seem to be a general sense out there that myself is a pronoun wearing its Sunday best.
A good example of someone trying to use myself in an "elevating" fashion is given at the end of the MWDEU entry, quoting a letter of inquiry received by Merriam-Webster:
- Quite recently, while using your lexicon, a rather interesting enigma manifested itself, one which I hope you can elucidate for myself.
There's even more to the story, including linguistic research demonstrating that myself becomes more acceptable when it identifies a person's role as "discourse referent" rather than "discourse participant." In other words, if you're focusing on your own active role in the conversational give-and-take of discourse, then myself doesn't work well beyond the typical reflexive or intensive contexts. But if you're only speaking about yourself as part of the scene you're painting, then myself may be a more idiomatic choice of pronoun. Even still, using myself instead of I or me can make you sound like you're striving too hard for elegance or importance, a tone that conscientious writers and speakers should avoid. As for me (but not myself), that's a rule of thumb that works better than any ironclad decree from the Language Police.