Tuesday 24 July 2012

Don't be afraid of me

I was brought up in a household with good grammar, and so choosing the right word usually comes naturally to me. The problem is that I read and listen much more than I write and speak, so having good grammar is a disadvantage, it just makes it confusing listening to other people.

Recently I have noticed a steep rise in the number of people, particularly politicians, using "myself" when they mean "me" or "I". It's not a matter of style or expressiveness, it's simply wrong. I'm given to understand that there is some reluctance to use "me" because it sounds informal. Picking "myself" as an alternative is like going to Buckingham Palace and not being sure whether to say "Your Highness" or "Your Majesty" and picking "Liz" instead.

The word "myself" only has two uses in the whole of the English language and one of them is obscure. You use it when you're the person doing something, and you're the person that you're doing it to. "I saw myself in the mirror." "I was shaving myself." etc. I'm sure we can all think of a dirty example of something that you do to yourself by yourself. In that case too "myself" would be right.

The only other time that you ever use "myself" is when you want to emphasise "I". "I myself witnessed a murder." "I painted them myself." If you're using "myself" like that, you can take it out of the sentence and it makes no difference to the meaning, only the feel.

Does it matter? No not usually, everybody will understand what you mean, but there are a couple of cases when it might. If you're writing something formal to someone with good grammar you not only look like an idiot, but you look like you're trying too hard. If you're writing something casual to someone with good grammar, they will find it impossible to read quickly, they will stumble over the "myself" and then check the whole sentence again to make sure that you aren't already in it, and then curse their outdated usage of the language before carrying on.

Richard "me myself and I" B


  1. How does "by myself", meaning alone fit into all this?

    1. You are doing something "by yourself". It's exactly analogous to doing something "to yourself":

      I will be reading to myself.
      I will be sitting by myself.
      I will be by myself.

      The third example is the hardest to understand. You are still the one doing something, and you're the one you're doing it to, but the only thing you're doing is simply being.