J. M. Pressley
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Gag Reflexive

I'm normally not a grammar geek (no catcalls from the peanut gallery, thank you), but there is at least one pet peeve I have about usage—or misusage—that is really annoying me the more I hear it. And no, it's not the pretentious adoption of using "an" instead of "a" in front of certain words beginning in "h."1 No, this is the more insidious misuse of the reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, him/herself, etc.

We've all heard it at some point in our lives. Someone puts a "myself" in a place where it doesn't belong. We pause, instinctively, when we hear it spoken. It might not sound awful, but it seems a little stilted in the conversation. Most of us, however, don't give it much more thought beyond that. As an overeducated guy with a graduate degree in English, I can't let it go as easily. That also explains my predilection toward writing on obscure topics such as reflexive pronouns. But hey, that's why they call it a pet peeve.

For instance, I'm talking with someone at work not too long ago. I'm doing the good deed for the day by pledging support for some cancer walk or the other in which some of our employees are participating. As usual, I pledge before I check my wallet; it's either my lunch or a few bucks toward cancer research. Sheepishly, I tell my colleague that I'll be happy to fork over a sawbuck in the next day or so. My colleague says, "No problem, both John and myself are doing the walk together. You can give the money to either one of us."

I winced. That's precisely the misuse that drives me batty. I half expected to hear, "You can give the money to ourselves." It's becoming so commonplace that I'm almost numb to it. Almost.

May I Explain Myself?

The primary reason that no one thinks about getting their reflexive pronouns right is that even the people who should know better seem to get it wrong. While you rarely see this kind of misuse in print, people are consistently mangling the usage when they speak (as they do with many of the finer points of grammar, I might add). The other culprit is the perceived formality of using the reflexive pronoun in context. Much like people mistakenly use "which" in place of "that" because they think it makes their speech more erudite, there seems to be a new school of thought that says "myself" sounds much more proper than plain old "me."

It doesn't make the mistake any less wrong, however. It just means there's a motive behind the crime. As the Romans were fond of saying, "Ignorantia juris neminem excusat.2"

Layin' Down the Law

The reflexive pronoun is either used when the subject of the sentence also receives the action of the verb (I hurt myself) or as an intensifier (I myself have misused this pronoun). It's called a reflexive pronoun because the pronoun "reflects back" to the subject of the sentence and is the object of an action verb, an infinitive, or a preposition. By definition, a reflexive pronoun should only rear its head in a sentence in which the subject noun or pronoun to which it refers is also present.

For every subjective personal pronoun (e.g., I, you, he, we) there is a corresponding reflexive pronoun (e.g., myself, yourself, himself, ourselves) that forms from its objective case. And they do not operate independently of one another.

In Layman's Terms

Now, since I realize all that may have seemed a bit formal, here's how you can easily remember when to substitute "myself" for "me" in a sentence: don't ever do it. As for a general usage rule, you can use "myself" when it's preceded by "I" in the same clause. Same goes for all the other pronouns.

Here's another tip. Only you can do something to or for yourself. And I'm the only one who can do something to or for myself. I can't see yourself in a mirror any more than you can see myself. But I can see myself, and you can see yourself. Got that?

And if that hasn't adequately explained the correct usage of the reflexive pronoun, you may just have to figure it out for yourself.


Footnotes

1 Technically, the usage of either "a" or "an" is correct, but "an" is only correct when used in front of a silent "h" word (such as an honor) or if the word's primary stress falls on the second syllable (such as an historic moment). This is an affectation born of British pronunciation and its tendency not to aspirate the "h" sound at the beginning of words up until the late 19th century. Although the usage is deemed acceptable in formal writing, it's still an affectation, and has been since the turn of the last century. That hasn't kept pompous news anchors from its continual propagation. One might say it's a historic mistake.

2 "Ignorance of the law excuses no one." And yes, I had to look it up, too.


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