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I myself personally speaking

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"Help!  I'm going crazy with the seeming loss in recent years of the word "ME".  It seems to have been replaced by I and myself - incorrectly.  Are we still using "ME" in general conversation, Kate?  It seems to have happened in the past ten or fifteen years when widespread complaints were heard of people thinking too much about themselves -  "Oh, it's all about ME, ME, ME."  Maybe I'm just a grouchy old thing, but it's a daily wish of mine that we'd again hear these words, and that they are used appropriately."

So began an email query I received not long ago. It’s one of many lately on the topic of pronouns — and in particular the first person pronouns I, me and myself. Many books could be written on what’s been happening to this group of words generally over the last few hundred years; so let me simply focus here on the reflexive pronoun myself.Myself

Reflexive pronouns make up a special category within anaphora — the relationships between words and other things that have already been said in the interaction (or written in the text). Think of these pronouns as reflecting (or being “reflexes” of) noun phrases that occur elsewhere in the same clause.

I bumped into Jo and knocked myself out.

In English these pronouns can also be used to add emphasis (I did it myself!). There are lots of corny jokes out there that play on this double function:

Tired of cleaning yourself? Let our trained staff do it for you.

The ambiguity here occurs because yourself could be understood reflexively (you clean yourself) or emphatically (you yourself clean).

But there’s another use where myself doesn’t reflect an earlier noun phrase, and this use has been worrying many English speakers for some time:

My illness had been entirely brought on by myself.

Now I’ve sometimes described this use of myself as offering a kind of verbal escape hatch. It sidesteps the whole thorny issue of whether to use me or I — something that has become a rather fraught aspect of English grammar. Many of you have probably been admonished for saying something like Mary and me – “Don't say Mary and me, say Mary and I”. But of course it’s more complicated than people let on, and there are all sorts of constructions where Mary and I is just not appropriate, at least in the standard language — They saw Mary and me or They gave it to Mary and me are what the grammar books recommend.

But you know what is particularly interesting about the example My illness had been entirely brought on by myself is that it’s old — from Chapter 46 of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), no less. This use of myself has a good pedigree.

Sociolinguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade has found plenty of early examples, even in 18th century writing. She describes the use as a “modesty device”, a way of drawing attention away from the self — so a little less egocentric. As she observes, myself has the stress on the second syllable, so my is nicely hidden.

On the inspiration of a juicy footnote in her article, I did a quick search of Captain Cook’s journals and found plenty of examples of myself without an antecedent:

In the afternoon we set up one of the Ships Tents a Shore and Mr Green and myself stay’d a Shore the night …

Myself, with several of the officers, kept a look-out at the mast-head ….

Having now satisfied myself that Mr Staehlin’s Map must be erroneous and not mine it was high time to think of leaving these Northern parts …

A very pleasant Morning, Lieutts Clerk and Edgcomb … went in a small Boat to the Indian Cove … while myself with Lieutt Pickersgill and Mr Hodges went in the Pinnace to view the North West part of the Bay.

Now, Captain Cook otherwise didn’t confuse I and me in subject and object positions, so my idea of an escape hatch is clearly misguided, at least for Early Modern English.

Non-reflexive reflexives abound in very early literature, and this includes the works of mighty fine writers like Thomas Malory and William Shakespeare.And let me not give the impression they are confined to just first person either. Here’s a lovely example from Malory (around 1475):

Hit is yourself I loue so wel.

Surely, if people have been using myself (and other -self pronouns) in this way for so long, then the question is — why didn’t the feature end up enshrined in the standard language?

It seems it fell from grace, and rather badly. In one of the first usage guides for Early Modern English, Reflections on the English Language (1770), the author Robert Baker provides quite a blacklist. And on page 117 he cites an example of a non-reflexive reflexive from the London periodical the Monthly Review.

They are so far from promoting real Trade, that the Support of themselves and Families are a dead Weight on its Profits.

Baker points out the incorrect use of the plural verb here (effectively the support are a dead weight) and then goes on to write:

But there is another Fault in these Lines. —  Of themselves and Families, for of themselves and their Families, is a very bad Expression, though very common. It is mere Shopkeepers Cant (Harris and Son, Clarke and Son, Brown and Son) and will always be found contemptible in the Ears of Persons of any Taste.

So Baker dismisses the construction as “mere Shopkeepers Cant” [= jargon] and “contemptible in the Ears of Persons of any Taste”. From this time on, usage guides followed his practice and poor old non-reflexive -self pronouns were snubbed forever.

But if you read Reflections on the English Language, there’s a lot of features you might feel like snubbing in Baker’s own writing. You probably noticed his missing apostrophe here (“Shopkeepers Cant”). The eighteenth century has been dubbed the “golden era of prescription”, and yet matters of punctuation fell completely under the purist radar — no one batted an eyelid over a misplaced hyphen, an aberrant apostrophe or even a missing apostrophe, as here.

As I’ve noted on other occasions, the cleaning up activities remain the same throughout the history of English — it’s only the definition of dirt that shifts.

Kate Burridge for Lingofile

PS: Many of these early usage guides are now available on Google Books, including Baker’s. One of my favourites is Walton Burgess Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language, Corrected (1856). His hit list of errors makes for interesting reading today. He only cites one non-reflexive reflexive, How’s yourself, this morning? — this he describes as “exceedingly common, but very objectionable”!

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).