Hills I Will Die On: Abuse of Myself

My teaching philosophy holds that one should limit the energy one spends sweating the little things.  I believe fanatically in teaching my students the rules that are actual rules, but my contribution to the interminable debate surrounding the series comma is a resounding “eh.”  While I favor the series comma, I don’t care whether you do, as long as you do it consistently.  I feel much the same way about whether you could or couldn’t care less, a historian versus an historian, and one space versus two spaces after a period.  Pick one and do it consistently, I tell my students.  I don’t get my petticoats in a bunch over “good” vs. “well,” sentences that end in prepositions, and sentences that begin with conjunctions.  I’ll fix them when they come up – and sometimes, they might not even be wrong in the first place – but they don’t make me angry like they seem to make some of us.  Life’s too short to get angry about that sort of thing.

Except this.

There is one grammar mistake you can make, and that some of you make, and that some of you make on purpose, that will never fail to send me into paroxysms of mouth-foaming rage.

I am talking, of course, about the abuse of “myself.”

It’s nothing against “myself.”  “Myself” is a perfectly good reflexive pronoun.  In the standard course of things, it has one very important job, which is to step in when a person needs to be both the subject and the object of their sentence:

I (subject) couldn’t lie to myself (object) about my feelings anymore.

I (subject) hurt myself (object).

I (subject) told myself (object) that I would win this never-ending war against myself (also object).

But that’s not good enough for some of you out there.  You insist on sending me emails, making announcements, and giving public speeches in front of live audiences containing war crimes like this:

If you have any questions, please email myself or George.

This donation is a great honor for myself and the entire department.

Boris, Natasha, and myself will be the judges of the costume contest.

And that’s when she started screaming in demonic tongues not from this world, Doctor.

This is wrong.  This is so very, very wrong.  This is wrong and immoral and an abomination against God and country.  If you have done it before now, stop immediately. Go forth and sin no more.

Why does this mistake irritate me in a way so many of the others don’t?  I’m not one hundred percent sure – everyone’s allowed to have their bugbears and they don’t have to be rational – but I think it has something to do with why people make the mistake.  I don’t have proof for this, but I think there are two factors that lead to “myself” abuse, and both of them show an inexcusable failure of teaching proper writing technique somewhere down the line.

The first is that people have developed an allergy to the word “me.”  Some of us got yelled at for using “me” when we should have used “I,” but no one ever explained to them that sometimes “me” is, in fact, the correct word, and that it’s not that hard to figure out when.  I’ll take care of it for you right now.

Are you the subject of your sentence?  Are you doing the verb?  Then you use “I,” as in “I am the subject of this sentence.”

Are you the object of your sentence? Is the verb happening to you, for you, around you, upon you, etc.?  Then you use “me,” as in “The verb in this sentence happened to me.”

When you’re dealing with a more complex sentence, the rules still apply, but all you have to do is eliminate the extra words from the sentence until you can see subject, verb, and object.  For example:

Greg was supposed to visit Julie and I this weekend, but both him and his kids got the flu.

We have two incorrectly used pronouns here.  Can you tell why? If you can’t, break down the sentence and get rid of the extra stuff.

Would you say “Greg was supposed to visit I”?  No, you would not. You’re the one being visited, and thus the object of the clause, so “me” is correct here.

Would you say “him got the flu?”  No, you would not. Greg is the one doing the getting, and thus the subject of the clause, so “he” is correct here.

Greg was supposed to visit Julie and me this weekend, but both he and his kids got the flu.

Now, if I gave this sentence to my students to correct before I had filled them with sage wisdom and education, I would get at least one version of the sentence that looked like this:

Greg was supposed to visit Julie and myself this weekend

and then I would have to pound my own head against my whiteboard for several hours.

The second reason that “myself” abuse has become an epidemic is that somewhere along the line, people got the idea that using “myself” as an objective pronoun is more formal, more elegant.  “Me,” they decided, was too casual, too pedestrian, too gauche, and also they got yelled at for using it when “I” was the correct pronoun. If they wanted to be EVEN MORE formal, they decided, they would even use “myself” to replace “I.”

It isn’t, it doesn’t, you don’t.  “Myself” is not a formal version of “me.”  It’s just not. “Myself” already has a job.  It doesn’t need to take over other pronouns’ jobs too.

There is exactly one valid reason to use “myself” in place of “I” or “me,” and that’s if you want to sound pompous and faux-educated.  And yes, there are times when you may want to sound pompous and faux-educated.  In an early scene from Stanley Kramer’s classic Inherit the Wind, Gene Kelly’s H.L. Mencken expy E.K. Hornbeck tells a hostile crowd in Hillsboro, Tennessee that his newspaper, the Baltimore Herald, “will be sending two representatives to Heavenly Hillsboro,” one of whom will be “the most gifted reporter in America today, myself.”  It works because Hornbeck knows the crowd already views him as pompous and faux-educated, and he eases the tension by playing into their preconceived notions.  The “myself” is a beautiful little touch of tone-setting. You’re not allowed to use it unless 1) that’s also what you’re trying to do and 2) you know the rules of grammar and style as well as H.L. Mencken did.

So please, dear readers, do your part today to end “myself” abuse.  Help us to restore good old “me” to its proper place of honor. And teachers, I beg of you – do, just on special occasions, sweat the little things.  You (subject) will thank yourself (object) for it when the essays come to call.

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