Friday, June 6, 2008

It’s Kind of Self-ish

I’ve noticed there are two little words in English that people don’t feel have enough oomph unless they add something to them. Those two little words are the pronouns me and you. Many people have just got to use the reflexive pronouns myself and yourself instead. The odd but common use of these reflexives appears to come from a deep-seated need to add to those one-syllable pronouns me and you, which don’t seem to be long enough to show some desired importance (me) or some desired deference (you). Look at these two conversations and you’ll see what I mean:

A: What are your plans for New Year’s Eve?
B: We’re going over to the neighbors. This is the first time they’ve invited Helen and me. We’re looking forward to it. So how about you? Any special plans?

A: What are your plans for New Year’s Eve?
B: We’re going over to the neighbors. This is the first time they’ve invited Helen and myself. We’re looking forward to it. So how about yourself? Any special plans?

Interesting, isn’t it? Oh! By the way, has it dawned on you that we only tend to do this for the singular yourself and not the plural form, yourselves? When the plural is involved, we say something like, “So how about you two?” or “… the two of you?” or “… you guys?”

I have a hunch that this interesting use of those two reflexive pronouns is related to a habit in Irish English of using himself or herself as a substitute for a person’s name as a way of showing a kind of irreverent respect for an individual:


Maid to Butler: Is Himself comin’ down for dinner this afternoon?
Butler to Maid: I t’ink so. Tell Cook to have everyt’ing prepared.

And then we’ve got the other extreme, when we should use those reflexive pronouns, but don’t. This time it seems that when we clearly want to emphasize myself or yourself and stress that element of a sentence, we can’t get the “oomph,” the “punch” that a one-syllable word affords us, especially when we’re juxtaposing the two elements. Just compare these two conversations:

Husband: A nice, relaxing vacation in some tropical location would be so great, honey.
Wife: Hmm… with you surrounded by Polynesian beauties, right?
Husband: I wasn’t thinking of myself; I was thinking of you! You’ve been working way too hard lately.

Husband: A nice, relaxing vacation in some tropical location would be so great, honey.
Wife: Hmm… with you surrounded by Polynesian beauties, right?
Husband: I wasn’t thinking of me; I was thinking of you! You’ve been working way too hard lately.

See how much more nicely me/you works in the second version than myself/you does in the first? Let’s listen in some more:

Wife: Oh, please! You want that vacation for yourself, not for us!
Husband: Nothing could be further from the truth!

Wife: Oh, please! You want that vacation for you, not for us!
Husband: Nothing could be further from the truth!

What do you think of these uses of myself and yourself, which many grammar books don’t include, or the omission of their use when grammar books say they should be used? Do you consider them correct, acceptable options, or just downright wrong?

It’s little things like these that can be so important to take into account when planning realistic grammar lessons for our students. I’d like to know your opinions about these quirks in the language, so please join in the conversation.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Richard. According to Collins Cobuild English Grammar, this is usual form:

Oh, please! You want that vacation for you, not for us!

"1.119 used as objects of prepositions
If the subject of a clause and the object of a preposition refer to the same person and the clause does not have a direct object, you use a reflexive pronoun after the preposition:

I was thoroughly ashamed of myself.
Barbara stared at herself in the mirror.
We think of ourselves as members of the local community.
They can't cook for themselves.


However, if the clause does have a direct object, you usually use a personal pronoun after the preposition:

I will take it home with me.
They put the book between them on the kitchen table.
I shivered and drew the rug around me.
Mrs Bixby went out, slamming the door behind her.


Note that if the clause has a direct object and it is not obvious that the subject of the clause and the object of the preposition refer to the same person, you use a reflexive pronoun:

The Managing Director gave the biggest pay rise to himself."

June 13, 2008 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Hi! Good to hear from you again. :)

The information you've shared with us is very interesting, of course. I agree completely with the basic rules they've presented, but I think they've contradicted themselves (Oops! Another reflexive pronoun!) in one of the examples. They say that "... if the clause has a direct object and it is not obvious that the subject of the clause and the object of the preposition refer to the same person, you use a reflexive pronoun. But above that they gave the example They put the book between them on the kitchen table and didn't use a reflexive pronoun. The problem is that we can't be sure that them refers to the subjects; it could just as easily refer to two other people, so I think themselves is called for in this case.

Even though my sentence You want that vacation for you, not for us goes against the rules, so to speak, I think the rule of parallelism comes into play here with you contrasted with us being much more effective and having much more "punch" than yourself contrasted with us. This is basically what I stated in that section of my piece.

Sometimes we break the rules for good reasons, my friend. Thanks for bringing this point up indirectly. I thought I had made that point, but perhaps I didn't do so clearly enough.

June 13, 2008 5:55 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home