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A Word, Please: Here’s an answer Nancy, herself, can use

When I was younger, I liked talking about myself. Back then, anytime anyone asked me about myself, I was eager tell them anything they wanted to know. Now, a little older and a little less self-involved, I’m not as eager to talk about myself, but I’m still happy to share anything you might want to know about “myself.”

Last week, Nancy in Burbank emailed me about that very topic: “Would you be able to address the usage of ‘myself’”? she asked.

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Sure. Happy to.

Nancy left her question open-ended, without mentioning any particular concerns or peeves about the ways people use this word. But I’ve been at this long enough to know that “myself” can be a pretty controversial pronoun.

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Take the following example: “Cindy and myself will give the presentation.”

Word to the word-cautious: People hate that.

Even less-awkwardly-worded variations evoke ire: “The presentation will be given by Cindy and myself.”

In sentences that use “or,” the “myself” sounds better. “The presentation will be given by Cindy or myself.” But, really, this poses the same problem: Technically, reflexive pronouns like “myself” don’t work this way.

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As idioms, all these ways of using “myself” are fine. No one can say you’re wrong if you construct sentences like these. But if you want to hew as close as possible to the rules of syntax, use reflexive pronouns only for their designated job: referring back to the subject, as in “I taught myself” or “I rewarded myself” or “I sent myself an email.”

Reflexive pronouns end in “self” or “selves”: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, themselves. Their job is to “co-refer” to the subject of the sentence. So when I say, “I rewarded myself,” both the subject and the reflexive pronoun are referring to the same person: me. That’s what we mean by co-referring.

To see how important this job is, try replacing a reflexive pronoun with a regular subject or object pronoun.

Instead of “I rewarded myself,” you’d get “I rewarded me.”

Instead of “We’ll show ourselves the door,” you would get “We’ll show us the door.”

Instead of “They did this to themselves,” you would get “They did this to them” (which would be grammatical if “them” referred to someone other than the subject, but it’s useless for co-referring to the subject).

Instead of “She credited herself,” you would get “She credited her” (making it sound as though there are two people referred to in this sentence).

Reflexives have one other approved function: They’re used for emphasis, as in “I, myself, prefer pepperoni” and “They themselves were at fault.” Those don’t cause a lot of errors because no one makes the mistake of using regular pronouns here. No one says “I, me, prefer pepperoni” or “They them were at fault.”

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The only time a reflexive will trigger a stickler’s gag reflex is when you use it in place of a subject or object pronoun.

Take “Cindy and myself will give the presentation.” Is “myself” the only option here? No. The plain-old subject pronoun “I” works just fine: “Cindy and I will give the presentation.”

Now consider “The presentation will be given by Cindy and myself.” The subject pronoun “I” doesn’t work here because the sentence calls not for a subject but for an object of the preposition. So try the object pronoun: “The presentation will be given by Cindy and me.”

A lot of people think “me” is informal or even wrong in such cases. I suspect that’s why “myself” crops up where it’s not needed. Folks figure anything’s better than “me.” But in fact, “The presentation will be given by Cindy and me” is the more proper option.

Whenever you’re tempted to use a reflexive but you’re not sure if it’s right, try the sentence with an object or subject pronoun. If it works, use that instead of the reflexive. That is, “Talk to John or me” works, so “Talk to John or myself” isn’t as good an option.

And that’s all I have to say about “myself.”

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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