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Me, myself, and I | COMMENTARY

A reader has challenged me to explain the misuse of myself.

OK: It is a combination of defective schooling and social anxiety.

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Oh, you were expecting more?

Let me give you the orthodoxy first, from the entry in Garner’s Modern English Usage: “myself is best used either reflexively <I have decided to exclude myself from consideration> or intensively <I myself have seen that> <I’ve done that myself>. The word shouldn’t appear as a substitute for I or me <my wife and myself were delighted to see you>. Using it that way, as an ‘untriggered reflexive,’ is thought somehow to be modest, as if the reference were less direct. Yet it’s no less direct, and the user may unconsciously cause the reader or listener to assume an intended jocularity, or that the user is somewhat doltish.”

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A reflexive pronoun, as Mr. Garner says, is used to intensify a noun or pronoun, or to refer back to the subject of a verb. And that is the case as well with the other reflexive pronouns (“He himself has said it, and it’s greatly to his credit. …”)

Myself often comes into play when we have been made to feel that I is egotistical* and me is lower-class and inelegant. Not wishing to look either pompous or dead common, the speaker/writer turns to myself to get out of the predicament of deciding.

But when we leave the tidy parlor of the usage manual and venture into the wild, things get more complicated. Let’s look at the unorthodoxy. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that the usage has not been all that settled, with myself often used as the subject of a verb or object of a verb or preposition.

And MWDEU comes to the subject with a battery of citations. Among forty or so:

“I presume that Mr. Murry and myself can agree. …” (T.S. Eliot)**

“as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself” (Henry James)

“which will reconcile Max Lerner with Felix Frankfurter and God with myself” (E.B. White)

So, I recommend that you do not shy away from using I and me. I suggest that it’s always safe to use myself as an intensive or a reflexive. But you have at your disposal many more opportunities for looking doltish than using myself casually.

* Remember those George Will columns saying President Obama was egocentric for using too many first-person pronouns and Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed comparable passages from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and demonstrated that Obama used first-person pronouns less frequently than his predecessors?

** Say it ain’t so, Joe.  

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