Q: One of my favorite books on English, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, says “myself” may always be used where the rules of grammar require “I” but people traditionally prefer “me.” However, another of my favorite books, Woe Is I, says one should not use “myself” if either “I” or “me” will work. Your thoughts?
A: A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen and Cornelia Evans, is a favorite with us, too, and over all it holds up remarkably well for a usage guide written in the ’50s. But in its entry on the use of “myself,” it begins to show its age.
We agree (and so does Pat’s book Woe Is I) with much of what the Evanses say about “myself.” But we disagree with them that “myself” may always be used instead of “I” or “me” after “than” and the verb “be.”
The issue here is what to do when there’s a conflict between the formal rules of English grammar and the usual practice of it.
In the 1950s, many usage authorities looked askance at a sentence like “She’s prettier than me” and insisted on “She’s prettier than I,” never mind that most speakers of English used “me” rather than “I” in that construction.
Similarly, many usage authorities of the ’50s condemned a sentence like “It’s me,” and insisted on “It’s I” or “It is I,” even though English speakers generally preferred “me.”
Torn between the formal rules and common practice, the Evanses offer this advice: “Myself may always be used where the formal rules of grammar require I but me is the traditionally preferred form.”
But times have changed. Usage authorities these days generally accept “me” in the examples above, making it unnecessary to use a clunky substitute like “myself.”
As we wrote on the blog back in 2008, most lexicographers and grammarians treat “than” as a legitimate preposition in constructions like “no man was more qualified than me” or “I’m taller than her.”
We’ve seen a similar evolution in the use of object pronouns after linking verbs, as in constructions like “it’s me” and “that’s him.”
In a posting written two years ago, we say the belief that a nominative pronoun (like “I”) should be used after the verb “be” came from a convention of Latin grammar. Today the choice between “I” and “me” in this situation is regarded as one of style—formality versus informality—rather than one of correctness.
In short, you can now confidently use the more natural “me” without apologetically resorting to “myself.” And that’s what we recommend.
As we say in another blog entry, reflexive pronouns like “myself” are normally used for emphasis (“I offered to do it myself”) or to refer to a subject already named (“He feels good about himself”).
But many people use “myself” for another purpose. They substitute it for “I” or “me” simply because they’re not sure which is right.
When this is the case, the speaker’s confusion generally shows, as in “Wendy and myself will plan the party” or “The bank sold the house to my husband and myself.”
Sentences like those reveal a weak grasp of English. “Wendy and I” is a better subject, and “my husband and me” is a better object.
Reflexive pronouns are best used for emphasis or to refer back to a subject. Otherwise, “I” or “me” is almost always better than “myself.”
So if you’re using “myself” merely because you’re inclined toward “me” but think it’s wrong, think again. Have a little more faith in “me.”
We’re not saying that “myself” is never a good alternative to “I” or “me.”
For example, you might use “myself” deep into a sentence when an ordinary pronoun would seem to get lost. Example: “There were a hundred people at the lecture—half the English class, a dozen friends of the speaker, most of the faculty, and myself.”
Or you might use a reflexive to add a specific and more emphatic reference to a general subject, as in “An old fuddy-duddy and inveterate nit-picker like myself.”
But before using “myself,” one should at least know what the traditional alternative is, then decide which is preferred for reasons of style, euphony, and the intended degree of formality.
Check out our books about the English language