“How did myself become your least favorite word,” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Correcting people is not a good habit. That might be part of the inspiration for this blog. I don’t want to correct people but I do want to write about habits I notice in speech and writing and about the words that make repeated, unwelcome appearances.
It was a correction that first made me aware of myself and its many issues. I was working at camp, over ten years ago but less than fifteen, when I overheard someone say “myself” and a fellow staff member explain to that person why they were mis-using the word. I can’t recall his exact words, but I think I heard reflexive pronoun in his explanation.
I will not go as far as to say that myself is a word you should never use, because it isn’t. But I hear it used incorrectly (and, thus, needlessly) more than any other word I can think of.
Definition of Myself
Google myself and you will immediately see the issue.
Read that definition again. First, what does all of that mean? Then look at that third item. That’s saying that when you’re being literary, you can say myself instead of I, right?
That is where we go wrong. I find a lot of the definitions and discussions of myself are needlessly complicated and written in a way that ordinary people find alienating—or, worse, written in a way that says “yes, myself is a fancy word so, yes, go ahead and use it when you’re being fancy.”
That is the issue. Right there. People think “myself” is just “fancy me.” Or, as I attempted to sum it up in this meme:
So… how should you use myself?
Myself is a reflexive pronoun. This means it should be used as the object of the sentence, when the first person is also the subject. This means that it is not a mere substitution for I or me, but is only to be used when you are referring back to yourself.
Why is there so much confusion around this? For one, myself is so widely misused in everyday conversation and writing that people naturally mislearn it. Next is the issue that a lot of people never got a great grasp on when to say me and when to say I. We know there are confusing rules around me and I, because our grade school teachers repeatedly tried to tell us that. They told us to say “Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and I” and at other times to say “Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and me” but we aren’t really sure when to do which. But “Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and myself” is something we can say, right? We don’t recall them saying much about myself, which must mean myself is fair game?
To make things worse, the internet does little to help. The Wikipedia page for myself redirects to the page for “Reflexive pronoun,” which opens with this warning:
Sure, you can find some blogs and other websites on the issue of myself, but as I mentioned before, a lot of them are written in a way that doesn’t help but does obfuscate or muddle even further. Although I do think this Lexico blog post about myself is good and more accessible than most.
Song of Myself
In the entry on actually, I argue that no one should use actually. I am not making that argument with myself. Take, for a moment, Walt Whitman’s use of myself in his epic poem “Song of Myself”:
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I had to be careful what example I chose from that poem, as he says myself 52 times in it and, well, it’s poetry. Poetry doesn’t always have to follow the rules. But we see two correct uses of myself in the two lines of poetry above. He sings of himself. He speaks of himself. He looks at others and sees himself in them. He says bad of himself because he says bad of others.
Whitman is not the only poet to correctly use myself. Other accurate uses of myself in pop culture include:
- Billy Idol’s Dancing By Myself: As Billy makes clear, “…I’ll be dancin’ with myself.” He is both the one dancing and the one he is dancing with, subject and object.
- Celine Dion’s All By Myself: For a simple read on why this works, consider that “all by me” and “all by I” would both not fit here at all. Plus, “all by myself” is a common, grammatically correct expression.
- Ke$ha’s Praying: “I had to learn how to fight for myself” is another flawless usage of myself.
- This interaction between Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock.
To better understand how to use myself, it might be good to consider some ways you can misuse it. Here are a few famous quotes, rewritten to use myself instead of the accurate pronoun:
- “No, Luke, myself is your father.” – Darth Vader
- “But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for myself, then myself will kill them both.” – Michael Corleone
- “You have bewitched myself, body and soul.” – Mr. Darcy
- “Mr. Jones and myself, tell each other fairy tales…” – The Counting Crows
How could Michael Corleone have correctly used myself in the above context? He would have to eschew the help of Clemenza and plant the gun on his own. Does Darth Vader have any reason to say myself? Nope, so it’s good he doesn’t. Mr. Darcy would have to bewitch himself, rather than be bewitched by Elizabeth Bennet. The Counting Crows definitely shouldn’t be saying myself but it’s easy to imagine a story where someone tells you about all the things “Mr. Jones and myself” said at the bar.
So what should you do when someone sings a song of myself?
I do not know. I have never corrected someone when they say myself. I try to avoid language corrections at all costs, aside from very close friends and family members who I think might appreciate it (and sometimes it is very much not appreciated, which is why I do it less than ever.)
I think often about the guy I worked with at camp who corrected people when they said myself. He was right, but was he right? I know there are misuses of myself everywhere. Roddy Doyle uses it often, but I think he does so intentionally, as he often writes with colloquialisms. Neil Gaiman misuses myself, which is probably not intentional but, also, Neil Gaiman’s job is not teaching language but telling stories (and it is a copy editor’s job to catch his mistakes.)
As bizarre as it is, writing this entry had me considering the exact motive and nature of people who say yours truly when referring to themselves, as suggested by this People Also Ask result:
My intention with this blog is not to send an army of correctors out into the world, but to inspire people to be more aware of their own usage. Are you saying myself on a regular basis? If so, should you be? Did I write this in a way that’s helpful or is myself still very confusing? If so, is it because you still aren’t sure when to say I and when to say me?