Writing Tip: Me, Myself, and I

frustrated-writer-2You don’t have to be a writer, or know the picky rules of grammar, to enjoy good writing. But if you want to create the good writing, a few bits of grammatical knowledge can do miracles. Grammar came alive for me — yes, it’s as weird for me to write that as it was for you to read that — during two punishing years of Latin at my Chicago public high school. Thank you, Ms. Shirley Robeson, Phi Beta Kappa. Since then, I myself, have dedicated myself to the endless delights of grammatical nuance — something that helps enormously as I tear into the Greek and Hebrew sentences in the Bible. [Dear Pastor Friend, it’s worth reading John Piper’s convicting challenge here.]

Today’s tip is on the correct use of myself, himself, herself, yourself and all those pesky pronouns ending in -self. When should we use them? And when does using them spoil the verbal party?

Simple answer: use the -self pronouns for two purposes only. 1) an INTENSIVE use, or 2) a REFLEXIVE use.

1. INTENSIVE USE

The -self pronouns emphasize the person, place or thing under scrutiny. Examples:

“I myself shall scrub the floor,” said the angry mother to her bratty kid. Can’t you just feel the emphasis?

“The king himself will lead the charge,” announced the general. Makes you want to cheer!

Here, the intensive pronoun intensifies the noun… a kind of verbal italics. This intensive pronoun comes in handy to indicate passion, anger, joy, courage, and a whole mess of emotions. By the way, don’t skip the noun or you’ll sound silly: Myself will scrub the floor — what are you royalty? Don’t skip the noun (I myself…). And don’t toss in needless commas: I, myself, shall scrub… 

One subset and we’ll end the pain on the intensive: I went to the movies by myself. You can go by yourself, but call when you get there. We’ll wash the diapers by ourselves. Still intensive, but in this usage, isolating the action from the bad breath of other participants.

Let us now move from the RACK of the intensive pronoun to the IRON MAIDEN of the reflexive.

2. REFLEXIVE USE

I hit myself on the knee with a hammer. 

I warned you this would hurt. Let’s take a trip down grammatical memory lane, though said lane is strewn with glass shards. The SUBJECT is I. The VERB is hit. The OBJECT is myself. When the subject and the object are the same entity, use the -self pronoun. You hit yourself on the knee. It smashed itself into the tree (said the teenager about Mom’s car).

What’s happening is simple: the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb upon itself.

The action ricochets back to the subject, like a reflection in a mirror… hence the term reflexive. If your teacher tortured you with diagramming, you’d draw an arrow from the object (direct or indirect, doesn’t matter) back to the subject, before allowing yourself to slip into a grammar-induced coma. See how I did that?

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Right. The subject (you) remains consistent, even in a comparative mode. …as [you love, implied] yourself. Same thing.

PS… trying to use both the reflexive and intensive pronouns in one sentence, while allowable, can be like trying to hammer a nail with one hand while sawing a board with the other. Example:

Now that this post is finished, I myself shall brew for myself a fresh cup of coffee.

Keep it simple: I shall now brew myself a fresh cup of coffee: Barista Prima Italian Roast, my favorite. Have yourself a very merry vernal equinox.

As always, sharing is appreciated.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Me, Myself, and I

  1. Interesting post, Bill……bad grammar can be like chalk on a blackboard. I myself needed that cup of coffee before delving into all this intensity. It is hard for myself to resist throwing in those commas you mention. Thanks for the tip on the Italian roast.

  2. Thanks so much for these handy tips, Bill! I find myself relying more and more on editors for grammatical perfection, but perhaps that robs me of the joy of perusing the nuances of the English language for such important emphasis. Thanks!

  3. See the guy in the picture? The one head first on the table? That’s me wrestling with grammar. But thanks to your lovely post I now know what reflexive means. Thanks, my friend.
    Any chance you’ll write a post on commas?

    Dabney

  4. My appreciation for Bill Giovannetti has reached an entirely new level. Wonderfully put. Thanks! So I guess it is safe to assume that you cringe when people say from the microphone, “If you have any questions, please see Joe or myself after the meeting.” Ugghh.

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