Language is an organism: it evolves, accommodates, and shape-shifts depending on the collective culture using it. Some language adaptations make good sense (the inclusive “they,” for example), while others are simply puzzling.
One such example where language goes off its rails is with the personal pronouns I, me, and myself. In recent years, language users and writers have done the equivalent of tossing them into the air, grabbing at whichever comes down first, and sticking it into a sentence. (Ha! Got it!)
Yet this willy-nilly approach of using “I” or “myself” in place of “me”, is neither a) necessary or b) correct and undermines any writer’s best intentions.
The psychological underpinnings of why we do this are clear, but we can nonetheless override our feelings, return these three words to their rightful places in our sentences, and finally restore order and peace to our writing.
I. Poor Me
It does seem odd that two nice looking letters like M and E when stuck together could cause such panic in adult people.
But commonly, because the personal pronoun “me” elicits a strong negative reaction, we’ll see sentences like, “Do you want to sit with Alan and I?” When I was teaching grammar and explained “me” was a perfectly fine word to continue to use it in a sentence as we’ve been doing for hundreds of years, some of my students actually put up their hands as if to shield themselves.
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Do We Blame the Mothers for our Pronouns?
If you grew up speaking English, you may have memories of being corrected when you said, “Me and Asha want ice cream” or “Neil and me are going to the park.”
Guaranteed, you said it right half the time, but if parents high-five their kids whenever they say things right, you’d never leave the house. So, where “Can you drive me and Jimmy to band practice?” went unnoticed, saying “Me and Jimmy want a sandwich,” got you corrected to “Jimmy and I,” sometimes in front of company, which stung. “Brad and me … ” “Nope, Brad and I.” And so on.
Over time, the word “me” became the thing that ought not be named, and the right thing to do seemed to be to remove it from your sentences entirely.
The result is in situations that call for some kind of personal pronoun, me’s two closest cousins— “I” and “myself”— have to suffice. The problem, of course, is they don’t.
What’s Wrong with Me?
“Me” is a stand-alone kind of pronoun with no synonym. Neither “I” nor “myself” comes even close. One might say, eh, no problem- look at how welcoming English is. It even takes sounds and makes them into words: Bling!
While this is true, we’re not yet at the point where we can go so off-roading. Perhaps in 34 years, when J7gslknwq345! is how we say “I love you” maybe, but for now, “me” is all we got.
With a little consideration about where to stick it in the sentence, you’ll see it’s not so scary as you might think.
Make Peace & Stick Me Where It Matters
In a sentence, different words take different positions. There’s usually a subject- the thing doing the doing- and an object, the thing on the other side of the thing being done.
As a visual: “I” (the subject) is like the quarterback, and “Me” (the object) is the receiver. All eyes are on the quarterback: the MVP of the sentence. When he throws the ball, he throws it to the receiver.
Some examples of subject-verb or quarterback-receiver sentences:
- Joe told me he loves chocolate.
- If you ask me, I think we’re doing great.
- Could you please hand me that pen?
Even in very complicated sentences, the subject is always the subject, and the object is always the object. The pronouns designated for these positions cannot be inverted or replaced, or you sound like a goober.
Yet how often do you hear in daily conversation or see in advertising or even newspaper articles an “I” in the spot where “me” should go:
- Do you want to take a walk with Asha and me I?
- If you ask Martha and I, that account has been compromised.
- Please feel free to be in touch with Joan or I if you have any questions.
Nope, Nope, and Nyet.
II. Who, Myself?
Our bruised inner children may explain why we use “I” in the place of “me”, but there’s an added issue of writers bumping out the “me” in those same sentences requiring an object (the receiver) and replacing it with “myself.”
Please reach out to Phil or myself if you need any help.
Given the rise of the selfie and the normalization of conversations that sound like two people in a Twitter battle, the fact that writers feel uncomfortable using the word “me” because it calls attention to them (some have said they worry it makes them seem self-absorbed (?)) in sentences is interesting, to say the least.
You know the expression “Close but no cigar?” I don’t know what it means either, but in this case, using “myself” instead of “me” is definitely no cigar.
Contact myself if you have questions.
Note: this sentence only works if “myself” is the name of your colleague. “Contact Myself Smith at Ext. 439 if you have any questions.”
Why Myself Doesn’t Work (maybe he’s independently wealthy?)
“Myself,” is neither a subject pronoun nor an object pronoun. It may sound close, but it’s about as close as saying “ketchup” or “jellyfish.”
Myself has one use in English: as a reflexive pronoun that denotes how particularly interesting or cool it is that someone did something him/her/their self (rather than having someone else do it).
- If Vice President Harris comes to her front door to buy cookies from the Girl Scouts rather than sending her aide, that’s a big deal. “Wait, she answered the door herself?”
- If your three-year-old shows up with a thunk of hair missing, the explanation is typically: (Sigh) She cut her hair herself.
- When I want to move my sofa across the room and it’s a pandemic and no one is around, I bend from the knees and do it my own dang self.
As you can see, like a boomerang or an inside joke no one gets but you, a reflexive pronoun can only be used one way. It can stand in as a synonym for nothing.
Yet if we don’t see sentences like these every day:
- Myself would like to welcome you to the meeting.
- Liz and myself are so happy you could attend.
- Please be in touch with Joe or myself if you have any questions.
(It hurts myself to write it).
Finding Peace with Pronouns & Getting Back on Track
The chief problem with trends in language is when they become swift and muscular like a raging river, it’s harder to swim against them.
You however do not need to go along with “Myself needs a day off” or “Kindly direct any inquiries to Mark and I” in your own writing. Some part of you knows these solutions are not good ones. In our Internet age, double checking a sentence is mere seconds out of your day, and the result is people will trust you, find you competent, publish your work, and defer to you in important matters.
Getting it right is powerful, and particularly for a writer or for one who wishes to be a good communicator in writing, power is a great seat to occupy.
(Don’t take only my word for it: here are 10 reasons you need to be a master of grammar to nail it in your writing every time.)
In 34 years, when your children’s children say, “I J7gslknwq399 you!” and you say, “Darling, it’s J7gslknwq345!” those children, like us before them, will learn and adjust. Maybe they’ll pick up some odd habits, or maybe later in their lives, they’ll read an article from their space pod that reminds them of best practices for using J7gslknwq345. So informed, they’ll adjust their writing and communication, make peace with their language, and ensure their reputations have a long and healthy future that aligns with the stars just outside.
Jenna Kalinsky is the Founder and Principal of One Lit Place.
Yep, we’re out there, the people who notice these things, and you’re right–we do a double-take, we cringe, and (a little bit) we judge. My kids have been known to make intentional grammar mistakes because it makes them laugh to see how it pains me. But victory is mine, because if they know how to say it wrong, that also means they know how to say it right. Thanks for sharing, Jenna.
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This was so helpful. I/me/myself get these three words confused so often. But it finally makes sense.
Great post. Thank you for sharing this with us.