Me, Myself, I, and Yourselves Too

29325A reader writes, “I received an email just now with the following in it: ‘A technician and myself went to check out the computer in SHM2012.’ I have noticed this a lot (our kids do it) — the unwillingness to use ‘I,’ and the substitution of ‘myself.’: definitely a feature of changing language.”

The use of the reflexive pronoun in a nonreflexive way seems to be a growing phenomenon, but the data are mixed. Among the and -self phrases, and myself occurs most frequently, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English as well as Google’s Ngram Viewer – but and myself, per COCA, has declined significantly since 1990, whereas and himself has risen. Though Ngrams shows a bump in and myself in the last few years, the examples tend to be some variation on book titles like My Father and Myself, which accords with COCA’s evidence that and myself occurs most frequently when the possessive my appears earlier in the sentence — as in one of the examples listed in Ngrams, from Philip Roth’s Reading Myself and Others (1975):

In time (more, probably, than it should have taken) I became aware of enormous differences of sensibility between my Jewish adversaries and myself.

Roth’s use sounds reflexive (though it isn’t) because of the modifying pronoun in “my Jewish adversaries.” Ditto most of the examples in COCA, like the response of a brigadier general to Gwen Ifill that “my group and myself have been working with both the House and Senate committees.”

Most of those examples, for all the reflexive pronouns I searched, are in spoken language (followed by fiction, which often represents spoken language in dialogue). But contrary to our reader’s observation, it’s not just young people resorting to the reflexive. In the February 11 PBS News Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton said,So, let’s not in any way imply here that either President Obama or myself would not take on any vested interest.” Clinton’s been criticized for using I too often, so resorting to myself could be a dodge here. My own suspicion is that it’s a dodge elsewhere, as well, as in the 2015 interview in which Bernie Sanders noted, “There are real differences between Hillary Clinton and myself.” Or take this recent blog post:

A story about my brother Brian and myself
One night my parents went out to a party and left Brian and i alone

What with the creep toward using I, he, etc. as prepositional objects (usually, as in the above example, as part of a compound object, but see my update on this trend here), and our wide acceptance of object pronouns following linking verbs (“It’s me”), myself feels like a safe alternative. In our classes, students who have been enjoined not to use I in formal academic papers feel as though they can get away with myself; in politics, candidates who fear being accused of narcissism can refer to a “self” that somehow stands apart. It’s like a discovery: the all-purpose, case-free pronoun!

The nonreflexive use of -self may be creeping in among mainstream published writers in a different way. As Philip Corbett observed recently in The New York Times, “writers sometimes use a reflexive pronoun where an ordinary personal pronoun is called for — perhaps in the mistaken view that the reflexive is more formal or correct. This often occurs in prepositional phrases such as ‘like himself.’” Some of Corbett’s examples:

Ms. Syz says her clients, primarily in Europe and the United States, many of whom are art collectors like herself, find traditional jewelry too staid and appreciate her mix of haute and tongue-in-cheek style.

Rayyane Tabet said he loved how the show juxtaposed Lebanese artists like himself with international artists rather than confining them to the category of “art from the Arab world.”

But for someone like myself, who lives on the East Coast and often visits Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard means something different: food.

Corbett’s focus is on preserving the Times’s style guidelines, so he doesn’t mention what strikes me about all these examples, which is that the pronoun that could be (but isn’t) the reference for the reflexive pronoun exists earlier in the sentence — in the first example, with “her clients”; in the second, with “he loved”; and in the third, with “someone.” In other words, the swing toward myself isn’t just a mistake or an example of faddishness, but a skewed understanding of how reflexivity works.

But the most interesting tidbit about this reflexivity business, I found when I started checking into it, is its deeper history. That same Ngram showed a much earlier bump, in the mid-19th century, for both and –self and like –self  locutions. Those documents are rife with nonreflexive uses of the reflexive pronoun, e.g.,

Whether unluckily or not, it is hardly now worth while to consider; but both Hume and myself, in quitting the office, forgot all about our borrowed pistols. [Memoirs, Journal, and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, 1853]

The rubrics to the session of the 23d April, 1846 are those of Segura, Flores, and myself. [The United States vs. Andres Castillero, 1860]

Branson and myself then agreed to compromise the matter, by submitting our difficulties to an arbitration. [True History of the Kansas Wars, 1856]

Judge Douglas complains, at considerable length, about a disposition on the part of Trumbull and myself to attack him personally. [Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Honorable Stephen A. Douglas, 1860]

I hazard no guesses as to what prompted this flurry of –self in the run-up to the Civil War. But I suspect that mixed in with various other reasons for its rise today is a distant echo of what we consider to be the more “proper” speech of an earlier time. If I sounds pretentious or narcissistic and me has been drummed out for being “wrong,” that leaves myself to elevate the discourse. Plus, as my colleague Ben Yagoda has observed elsewhere, “once people start talking or writing, they like to do so as long as they can, even if the extra airtime comes from saying ‘myself’ instead of ‘I.’”

I myself don’t much like it, but maybe yourselves have some other view.

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