Sunday 28 January 2018

Me, Myself, and I

These three words often get confused and misused, usually when a writer is trying to sound formal.

1964 photo by Chris Ware of two London police officers watching actors in alien costumes cross the street

Just Between You and Me

If you want to seem fancy, you might write, for example, Keep this between you and I. But the correct wording is Keep this between you and me, so you’ve come across as clueless rather than classy. In grammar circles, this kind of overcompensation is called a hypercorrection.

I (the nominative case) is used for the subject of a sentence or clause. Me (the objective case) is used for the object of a verb, the object of a preposition, or the subject of an infinitive.

  • I am from out of town. (subject of sentence)
  • Those cops don’t worry me. (object of verb worry)
  • Nobody comes between me and Zorg. (object of preposition between)
  • Zorg asked me to lead the way. (subject of infinitive verb to lead)

These examples probably seem obvious. It’s when an and (or an or) is involved that people often trip themselves up. The easiest way to avoid mistakes is to try your sentence without the other person.

  • It would be a different matter for you or I.
  • It would be a different matter for I. X
  • It would be a different matter for you or me. 

  • Give the Princess of Zanzibar and I your fealty.
  • Give I your fealty. X
  • Give the Princess of Zanzibar and me your fealty. 

Portrait of the Princess of Zanzibar with her African Attendant by Walter Frier, 1731

I Made It Myself

Myself (the reflexive case) is used either as an intensifier or to show that the action is reflecting back onto the actor.

As an intensifier, myself appears in sentences like I myself don’t dance and I crocheted it myself. You could take out myself and the sentence would still make sense; it’s just there to add emphasis.

The second, reflecting use occurs in sentences like I embarrassed myself. Here, the verb’s subject and its object—the one who embarrasses and the one who gets embarrassed—are the same person.

Again, it’s the ands and ors that throw people off. You can use the same method as above to see whether your sentence needs a reflexive pronoun.

  • I signed my roommate and myself up for Underwater Basket-Weaving 101.
  • I signed myself up for Underwater Basket-Weaving 101. 
  • I signed my roommate and myself up for Underwater Basket-Weaving 101. 

  • Send the kryptonite to my neighbour or myself.
  • Send the kryptonite to myself. X
  • Send the kryptonite to my neighbour or me. 

Don’t be tempted to use myself as a subject. That’s not its job.

  • The saucer’s crew and myself thank you.
  • Myself thank you. X
  • The saucer’s crew and I thank you. 

Even when the subject of the sentence is I, the next pronoun isn’t necessarily myself. Remember, the instigator of the action and the recipient of the action have to be the same person.

  • I called a flying fish to carry my wife and myself home.
  • I called a flying fish to carry myself home. X

Myself is the object of the verb to carry. Even though I is the subject of the sentence, the subject of to carry is fish—it’s the fish who’s going to carry me. Because the fish and I are not the same person, this sentence does not take a reflexive pronoun.

  • I called a flying fish to carry me home. 
  • I called a flying fish to carry my wife and me home. 

Detail from The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

On Behalf of Me and Myself

Sentences with on behalf of are hard to get right because rephrasing them doesn’t help: you wouldn’t say on behalf of me or on behalf of myself, you’d say on my behalf.

  • Thank you on behalf of the coven and myself.

Myself is the indirect object of the verb thank. The implied subject of thank (i.e., the thanker) is I—as in, I thank you. So the final pronoun is reflexive.

  • The Big Man speaks on behalf of the other Feegles and me.

Here, the subject of speaks, the Big Man, is not the same as its indirect object, me. So we don’t need a reflexive pronoun.

If it helps, you can replace the prepositional phrase on behalf of with the preposition for.

  • I thank you for [the coven and] me. X
  • I thank you for [the coven and] myself. 
  • The Big Man speaks for [the other Feegles and] myself. X
  • The Big Man speaks for [the other Feegles and] me. 

It Is I

One of the more obscure sources of I-versus-me confusion is predicate nominatives: pronouns that follow linking verbs like be, seem, look, or feel. The best-known example is probably when a caller says, “May I speak to the lady of the house?” and you answer, “This is she.”

Of course, you probably don’t answer “This is she,” because few people follow this rule anymore. Saying “It’s me” is far more common than saying “It is I,” which sounds ridiculously pompous and old-fashioned. (A best-selling grammar book pokes fun at this with the tongue-in-cheek title Woe Is I.) Using the nominative case (I, he, she, we, they) after is or was is technically correct but socially awkward. Even the most formal readers are unlikely to fault you for ignoring this rule.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac for Sleeping Beauty, 1910

So Why Should I Care?

In spoken English these mistakes are common, even accepted. You could argue that in casual writing there’s no need to be so persnickety. But consider this scenario: your narrator is a down-to-earth gal who doesn’t give a damn about grammar—who gets hired by the Duke of Lahdidah to find his missing son. If, in trying to make your Duke sound hoity-toity, you pepper his speech with between you and I and the Duchess and myself welcome you, you’re going to ruin the illusion for any readers who pay attention to grammar (and believe me, we’re out there). On the other hand, if you want to convey that a character is trying hard to sound posh but hasn’t had a rigorous education or an elitist upbringing, hypercorrection is the perfect tool.

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