Reflections On Reflexives

Much argument about language, on the web and no doubt elsewhere, arises from a failure to appreciate the difference between grammar and style. Grammar tells us what a language allows its speakers to say. Style describes the ways in which speakers use grammar for various effects and with varying degrees of success.

One cause of misunderstanding in this area is the use of reflexive pronouns. The reflexive pronouns are: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself, ourselves and themselves. They are typically used to refer an element in the clause back to its subject, as in I’ve hurt myself or They’ve humiliated themselves. They are also used to emphasise a noun phrase, as in He himself is not to blame or The representation of an object is not the object itself.

Some speakers also use the first person singular reflexive pronoun, myself, in place of I or me. This is well-attested. The Oxford English Dictionary has ten citations in support of myself in object position and eighteen in support of its use in subject position. The first include citations from Langland, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Burns and Ruskin. The most recent is this from the ‘Daily Telegraph in 1960:

He subjected a colleague and myself to analyses of alcohol in the blood on his breath-testing machine.

Authors cited in support of the second include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Addison, Browning and Masefield. The most recent is this from the ‘Church Times’ in 1988:

Myself, as Deacon and Chaplain at the University of Kent, opened for the diocesan team.

The OED has a further definition of myself  ‘as part of a compound subject or predicate, and after than or as. Also (chiefly Irish English) as simple predicate.’ Supporting citations include those from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Richardson, Johnson, Scott and Hardy. The most recent is from the ‘Ice Hockey News Review’ in 1996:

Myself and Phil Chard are now running the coaching.

With such evidence, any claim that this use  of myself is ungrammatical has no basis. It is found in the writings of the high and the low across the centuries. But the crucial point is this. Yes, it is grammatical, yes, it is  is supported by the practice of the most skilled writers in the language, yes, it exists in contemporary English, but those facts alone will not mean that it will necessarily be effective in all circumstances. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ , Pam Peters gives as an example

The chairman invited myself to that position.

She suggests that those who use such a construction do so it an attempt ‘to avoid putting the spotlight on themselves’. She adds ‘There is no need to do this. In fact we draw less attention to ourselves by using the ordinary me.’ What she doesn’t say is that it is ungrammatical.

Take-home message: The use of myself in place of I or me is grammatical. That’s a fact. Whether or not it’s effective is a matter of opinion.

Advertisements

11 Comments

Filed under English Language, Language

11 responses to “Reflections On Reflexives

  1. Excellent post, Barrie. I remember being surprised when I first noticed how common a peeve this is: that people so often (or so strongly) object to the use of reflexive pronouns that aren’t grammatically necessary. The complaints allow little or no leeway for stylistic or rhetorical effect, or indeed dialectal norms. In Ireland, we use them quite a lot; I mentioned some examples in a comment at Johnson a couple of months back.

    Like

  2. mdurrie

    Why use one syllable when two will do, eh?
    Pam Peters’ example reminded me of hearing athletes refer to themselves in second person, seemingly to distance themselves from any feelings: “You work hard for this, and when you finally do it you really enjoy it.”

    Like

    • Brevity, mdurrie, is indeed often a virtue in writing, but in speech we sometimes need to use more words than are strictly necessary to convey our meaning in order to say something about our relationship with those we are addressing.

      This use of ‘you’ is, of course, a separate point, but it’s one worth thinking about. It is often used in this way, and I’d go so far as to say that we all do it at one time or another. It even has a name: generic ‘you’.

      Like

  3. Pingback: New language blog: Caxton | Sentence first

  4. “Grammar tells us what a language allows its speakers to say. Style describes the ways in which speakers use grammar for various effects and with varying degrees of success.” That is the best explanation I have read for those two words.

    I have begun to accept the use of “myself” in the objective, but it still hurts me to read or hear it used as a subject.

    Like

    • Kind of you to say so, Lori.

      I imagine what you object to is a sentence like ‘My wife and myself were invited to lunch’. I don’t think I’d say that either, but we have to recognise that others do. Whether it is an effective piece of communication depends on the circumstances, and the response of those it is addressed to.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Unruly Reflexives | Caxton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s