I was reading a newspaper article in which the following sentence appeared: “Myself and my neighbours would not support that proposal.” This is a common misuse of the reflexive pronoun myself. Imagine if this person had no neighbours. Would he say “Myself would not support that proposal?” I hope, as a native English speaker, he would use the correct pronoun: I, as in “I would not support that proposal.”
My guess as to how this error arises is that the reflexive pronoun myself can be used in two circumstances. First, we use it for emphasis. The speaker could use it to emphasize that he is personally objecting. “I, myself, could not support this proposal.” This usage is a little egoistic, since clearly there is no need to emphasize the subject. On the other hand, a more natural usage would be: “I, myself, built this house” (meaning I did it by myself, instead of hiring someone to do it.”
The other use of myself is related, and is used to show that the subject and object of the verb is the same person. I hit myself in the hand.
These are the only two times you should use myself: as a reflexive and for emphasis. All other uses are incorrect and should probably be I or me.
When to use I or me
Since we never use myself to stand in where I or me could do, which one should we use? The following are some of the common places I hear these errors:
- The boss asked myself to do it. (me)
- Myself and Bob will be in charge. (I)
- She gave it to myself. (me)
In two of the above cases, the pronoun me should have been used. But many people have an inner child who is constantly in fear of misusing me in the form of: Me and Sally went to the park (or even Sally and me went to the park). When we were children we were corrected and told “It’s Sally and I…” So we wiped “me” out of our vocabulary and stick with “and I” for any construction involving two persons, whether in the form of subject or object.
Thus we have “Please give it to Bob and I” as a common statement. “John went to the beach with Fred and I last weekend.”
Oh, the horror. It feels to me as if the pronoun me is being forced out of the English language. It’s a perfectly good pronoun and proper even in formal usage.
It wouldn’t be the first time in English that a pronoun has been forced out through fear of being wrong.
RIP Thou Thee
Remember thou and thee? Probably not, unless you are 500 years old. But at one time, English had a lot more pronouns. The second person subject pronoun was thou and the second person object pronoun was thee. We still use thee in our marriage vows: “With this ring I thee wed.”
Old English, being derived from Germanic languages through the Anglo Saxons originally used thou and thee for subject and object pronouns just like I and me. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the word you began to be used as well. You was used for formal usage, and the old forms were used for familiar usage. (Notice how the conqueror’s language had the high-class connotation. Don’t we like to suck up to people in power?)
What happened was that given two pronouns, with one being more fancy, people began to use the fancy one exclusively. Unlike today, when misusing a pronoun might evoke a sneer, or even an insulting blog post, in the 1500s calling your superior thee instead of you could earn you/thee a flogging. So to be on the safe side, people used you more often. Eventually, thee and thou fell out of use except in some isolated locations.
Will I follow thou into oblivion? It’s hard to say since today we have hard and fast grammar rules to follow. Today these common errors simply draw a sharp distinction between those who have mastered the basic grammar of the language and those who haven’t. And they keep us editors in business.
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