Me, Myself, and Ai-yi-yi

If the English Language was a hockey game, poor “myself” would be on the permanent disabled list. No word in the lexicon takes as brutal beating as that one, and that’s saying a lot considering all of the syntactical cross-checks being inflicted upon our vocabulary every day.

Sadly, “myself” seems to be an innocent victim of the unrelated “Me vs I” confusion that plagues America’s youth. We are all repeatedly bludgeoned with rules when our young mouths utter grammatically-challenged phrases such as “John and me went to school”, or “John and me ain’t learnin’ nuthin’ in this english class.”

“John and I ain’t learnin’ nothin’ in english,” we are repeatedly corrected, and in a very subtle way the word “me” becomes a taboo. If in doubt, don’t say “me.”

But sometimes, “me” is exactly the right word. I work in a corporate environment and several times a month I hear educated men and women mangle the word “myself” in an apparent effort to avoid making an error. (Ironic, no?) Of course, it’s impolite to call someone on it, so it is perpetuated ad infinitum. (Try speaking up: “Thoughtful memo, Mr. Brown, excepting your elementary-school-level misunderstanding of the singular self-identifier.” Yeah, you’re going to be a big hit at the meetings.)

Here’s a pop quiz—is this sentence correct?

“If you have a problem with the software, contact John or myself.”

If you answered yes, you can write memos at my company, because it’s wrong. And here’s an easy way to tell: What if John was fired, so you couldn’t contact him. The sentence would then be:

“If you have a problem with the software, contact myself.”

Obviously (or at least I hope obviously) you wouldn’t say that, you’d say “Contact me.” So if John gets his job back (yeah, good luck with THAT, John) it should read “Contact John or Me.”

How about this one:

“John hates it. As for myself, I don’t have an opinion.”

Incorrect. It would be proper to say “as for me”, though frankly, leaving that modifier out completely would be fine, since “I have no opinion” clearly implies the “me” in question, though that’s simply personal taste rather than egregious misuse of the language. (Sheesh, don’t get me started on that tangent.)

In fact, there are few correct uses of “myself”—and here’s are examples of each:

“What a day! I’m going to fix myself a drink!”

That’s correct. In teacher-talk, when the subject and the object of the sentence are the same person, the reflexive pronoun is appropriate, and “myself” is the first-person reflexive pronoun. Likewise, if your day was tough, you would make yourself a drink.

“What a day! I shredded 2000 documents by myself. There’s no paper trail now!”

Again, this is emphasizing the subject of the sentence. If you did the shredding, then you would have done it yourself. (By the way, never use this example if you need to explain the use of the reflexive pronoun to an auditor.)

An easy way to remember is that you should only use “myself” if the word “I” comes before it in the same sentence, as both of these examples illustrate. And if the sentence involves plural persons, remove the other items and make sure your word choice works in the singular as well.

But then, isn’t half the fun of watching hockey to see the fights? Perhaps the language doesn’t need my screaming from the sideline, however well-intentioned? Perhaps language needs no helmet rules, and the words should learn to how to take a hit now and then? Perhaps—but look at the size of you, and look at the size of this word:

     myself

It hardly seems a fair fight, you big verbal bully.

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