Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I/me/myself: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, May 2, 2012.

In the old days when people studied traditional grammar, we could simply say, “The first person singular pronoun is ‘I’ when it’s a subject and “me” when it’s an object,” but now few people know what that means. Let’s see if we can apply some common sense here. The misuse of “I” and “myself” for “me” is caused by nervousness about “me.” Educated people know that “Jim and me are goin’ down to slop the hogs,” is not elegant speech, not “correct.” It should be “Jim and I” because if I were slopping the hogs alone I would never say “Me am going. . . .” If you refer to yourself first, the same rule applies: It’s not “Me and Jim are going” but “I and Jim are going.”

So far so good. But the notion that there is something wrong with “me” leads people to overcorrect and avoid it where it is perfectly appropriate. People will say “The document had to be signed by both Susan and I” when the correct statement would be, “The document had to be signed by both Susan and me.” Trying even harder to avoid the lowly “me,” many people will substitute “myself,” as in “The suspect uttered epithets at Officer O’Leary and myself.”

“Myself” is no better than “I” as an object. “Myself” is not a sort of all-purpose intensive form of “me” or “I.” Use “myself” only when you have used “I” earlier in the same sentence: “I am not particularly fond of goat cheese myself.” “I kept half the loot for myself.” All this confusion can easily be avoided if you just remove the second party from the sentences where you feel tempted to use “myself” as an object or feel nervous about “me.” You wouldn’t say, “The IRS sent the refund check to I,” so you shouldn’t say “The IRS sent the refund check to my wife and I” either. And you shouldn’t say “to my wife and myself.” The only correct way to say this is, “The IRS sent the refund check to my wife and me.” Still sounds too casual? Get over it.

On a related point, those who continue to announce “It is I” have traditional grammatical correctness on their side, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who proudly boast “It’s me!” There’s not much that can be done about this now. Similarly, if a caller asks for Susan and Susan answers “This is she,” her somewhat antiquated correctness is likely to startle the questioner into confusion.

1 comment:

  1. Professor Brians
    Thank you so much. You often make me smile with your explanations. I read them every single day and I love them. I would like to respond to today's topic I/me/myself. Having grasped this usage some time ago I have enjoyed explaining it to my friends and an occasional stranger with a grin. In Ireland some of us still use a colloquial greeting ‘Is it yourself? Or ‘ah it’s yourself that’s in it’! There’s a much cruder term which must be spelt as it sounds ‘Whale, oil, beef, hooked’! But this one is associated with an immodest amount of consumed alcohol.
    However, the point about the telephone caller looking to speak with Susan and she answers ‘This is she’ is still correct regardless of trying to comfort the caller’s misunderstanding of the greeting. I myself use this form because having spent time figuring out its correctness and, without snobbery intended, I no longer approve of the error. Other worse forms I’ve heard used such as ‘this is him or her’ are more challenging for me. When asked to explain it, I simply tell them that you cannot say ‘this is him or her’ because it could imply that a third person is present and you can even point to that person on a video call showing the caller that the third person is in fact him or her. Thank you again.