Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

More Musings on "Myself"

Yesterday we heard from contributor Julia Rubiner about a pattern she identifies as an "epidemic": using the word myself in place of a plain old personal pronoun like I or me. She was 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 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 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.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 3:05 AM
Comment by: Donald R.
Fun, and quite interesting. Also research that I have been anticipating in VT, so, I am glad that you presented the two articles. And, yes, please note that I have resisted using myself in some quaint fashion. I also especially agree with Mr.Zimmer's final comment.
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Well done! Thanks for the elaboration, Ben! And I too agree with your last 'two' sentences.
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 8:11 AM
Comment by: Eileen L.
I can't help but think of the line in the Austin Powers movie when Austin begins his introduction, "Please allow myself to introduce myself...
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 9:52 AM
Comment by: Abby K. (West Caldwell, NJ)
I find that people often "plug in 'myself' as a replacement for I or me" when they are not sure which of those two pronouns is correct.

There was a heated discussion between the English teacher and (I? me?)myself.

He is a much better dancer than (me? I?) myself.
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Abby K's comment is extremely observant. The I/me bugaboo is so scary to people who don't understand it that if there's an alternative, they'll grab it like a lifering in roiling seas. Few things raise the eyebrows of language purists more than an incorrect usage of the first-person pronoun; in order to avoid looking bad in their eyes, people will substitute 'myself' instead, which has the added benefit of sounding more "elevated" anyway.

I personally hate the use of "myself" in any context other than the reflexive, and self-consciously avoid it even when 'I' or 'me' sounds funny -- although Ben does point out some good examples where it sounds less-than-horrible.

Thanks for exporing these interesting questions!
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think that just as people want to avoid instances of using “myself” that, as Ben says, “make you sound like you're striving too hard for elegance or importance,” there’s the counter-phenom of people discreetly avoiding “I” and “me” where the use of these pronouns makes it obvious that “I/me” is the only subject that really interests the writer or speaker. Slipping in a “myself” supplies a variation to an overworked theme. So it’s a balancing act!
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Michelle G. (Scottsdale, AZ)
This is great and something we were just discussing at work last week!

As a former court stenographer and legal secretary many years ago, I was proofing a letter written by one of our attorneys. The closing line read, "Please feel free to contact either myself or my secretary." I was horrified and promptly did what I was trained to do, and that was to correct the attorney's grammar. I was so proud of myself (me?I?)for catching that and thought for sure - when I saw him running down the hall to my desk from his office - that he was going to thank me for catching that ....... But my oh my, did I get my *&^% chewed up and down and sideways for having the nerve to correct HIM. I still feel, 28 years later, that his use of "myself" was incorrect, and reading this article brought back a smile :)
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
Interchanging I, me and myself can be either wrong or right, depending on the person and the person's viewpoint. A multi-lingual, non-native user of English, I believe I can deliver an impartial, honest and non-judgmental view. Those who acquire speech the way parrots do, i.e. by merely repeating patterns they hear others use, lack the sense of deeper meaning words and their interaction with other words have. The influence of such must invariably affect, at times, even those who when manage to grasp that paying attention to word meanings above mere patterns and whose utterances others come to admire as being somehow better. It is not surprising that among the examples above, many most literate persons substitute myself where they should not. At times, substituting myself for I seems appropriate in cases where using I is like making one more important, by association with others mentioned, than you are. The Germans have a saying--roughly put: "I, donkey first." Shakespeare deliberately elevates the importance of his own person, but, however, like Dickinson, uses myself to show whene one observes oneself as if looking at a third party. Austen uses myself to clearly emphasize a shift in who she speaks of. Unfortunately, respect for literacy has dwindle and will continue to do so. My chief gripe is with the misuse of prepositions and other glue-words, those that connect ideas to make them contribute to a greater whole.
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 4:09 PM
Comment by: KingsChampion (New York, NY)
I always enjoy some verbal fencing over usage,I believe the cause ,in general,screams for a website devoted to it exclusively.That being said,I believe there are far more egregious violations than this initial claim,but I suppose this is for another article.Your (the complainants) case is weakened further by the myriad of examples you choose,as most of those examples you choose are grammatically correct.A fact you overlook completely,is the Hiberno_English affect,where most of this comes from.Translations,translations,translations.
Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 5:31 PM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
"Me, Myself & I" is still one of the best songs of the 80s, and, I believe, correct use of the word myself:

Tuesday September 23rd 2008, 10:58 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
To me, it is finally fully gratifying (in this world of half-truths and folly) to have a resource with such obvious authority as Ben Zimmer.
Thursday September 25th 2008, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
I have sympathy for the devil here, as I have read this article and still don't know when using "myself" is correct. I see that the substitution in a moment of subject-object confusion is wrong, but I don't need that crutch. So will you allow me to introduce myself--or not?
Thursday September 25th 2008, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Gena: "Allow me to introduce myself" is an uncontroversial use of myself: it's reflexive, referring back to the pronoun me. Now, if you said "The emcee introduced myself," that would be the kind of non-reflexive usage we're talking about. (That sentence doesn't sound very good, but "The emcee introduced Jane, John and myself" is a bit more acceptable.)
Saturday September 27th 2008, 4:19 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
"There does seem to be a general sense out there that myself is a pronoun wearing its Sunday best" is a lovely sentence. The article is interesting too. I am facinated by how much passionate fire the use of myself can ignite. I am relaxed about the use of myself in most instances. And, I must say, in defense of Miss Dickinson, I would be happy to sound like her as in the following:

My life closed twice before its close
by Emily Dickinson

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

And, though I am often wary of Merriam Webster for some reason that I cannot defend, I have just excitedly purchased a copy of MWDEU from my local independent bookseller.

Thanks for the explanation. I agree with Roger Dee that VT is a nice refuge "in this world of half-truths and folly," as he so poignantly (plaintively?) puts it. I myself could not have said it better.
Sunday September 28th 2008, 7:25 AM
Comment by: Beth V. (Santa Cruz, CA)
Perhaps it might work as a wedge to lift up some of the weight of the this most loaded of words--myself--and create some space around it by looking to pronoun (or "shifter) usage in another language.

Let's take ancient Greek, whose grammar and syntax differs radically from our English word order dependent kind. Greek is highly inflected, both conjugations of complex verbal systems and declination of subtle nominial systems.

The first person pronoun intensifier is "autos," and, since there is no pronoun equivalent to "I" because it is part of the conjugation of the verb, "autos" appears for emphasis in rhetorical and other situations. The rough idea would be "I myself ....." [did something].

However, there is a complication in Greek, especially early Greek (that is, pre-medieval). This same intensifier also mean "same" as in our etymological prefix "auto-" (automobile, autonomy, etc.).

In fact, there is a famous aphorism by Heraclitus about the way up and down being one and the same, and the word for "same" (the concept of identity with) is "seauton" (which is merely a Pre-Socratic version of "autos, auton," etc.).

The question then arises: how are "myself" and "same" related?


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Is there an epidemic in "myself" usage?
Why does "widespreadly" sound so wrong?
Part two of the great "whom" debate, from Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky.