Personal pronouns: How you use yourself

Warning: Possible brain strain ahead

People get their knickers in a twist over how to use personal pronouns: I, me and myself; we, us and ourselves; she, her and herself; he, him and himself; and they, them and themselves.

General syntactic usage has a logic, but you must first understand that English is what linguists call an SVO (Subject>Verb>Object) language. Most sentences (Subject) arrange (Verb) words (Object) in the SVO order (a prepositional phrase showing how the locative verb arrange  acts on its object).

If you have taken a foreign language, you know how syntax works: Words sometimes change their form according to how they work in a sentence. Here’s how it goes for personal pronouns in English:

  • I, we, you, she, he, and they: These are the subject forms of personal pronouns.
  • Me, us, you (the second person doesn’t change!) her,him and them: These are the object forms of personal pronouns.
  • Myself, ourselves, yourself, herself, himself and themselves: These are both the reflexive and intensive forms of personal pronouns.
    • A reflexive personal pronoun is used when both the subject and object is/are the same person/people: You’re only hurting yourself  or They ran themselves into the ground.
    • An intensive personal pronoun emphasizes focus on the person or people: They themselves believe up is down. 

Most people have little problem seeing that sentences like I paid him or We paid them use “correct” subject and object forms. Many  have problems, however, with themselves—that is, the use of memyself  and I. A part of the problem is that people don’t want to seem selfish. We’ve been taught that a me-me-me attitude is to be avoided. But being “other-focused” makes people shy away from the use of I as in I found this evidence.

What they end up substituting for this perfectly good sentence (if true) is a passive construction: It was found. But doing so manages to make you both mealy-mouthed and self aggrandizing. Not a good combo for communicating effectively.

Another misuse is rooted in the same selfishness about being unselfish. You see it in sentences such as Roger and myself paid the bill. Since I is the subject form, that sentence should be Roger and I paid the bill.

The second most prevalent misuse regarding me, myself and I is the avoidance (this probably a remnant of pedanticism in your childhood) of me where it does belong. Many people will say either She gave the money to Roger and I or She gave the money to Roger and myself. Relax. It’s She gave the money to Roger and me (subject form).

There is, depressingly, much more to say about personal pronouns, but let’s end with an example that shows language as an evolving life form: When as asked Who’s there? it’s perfectly okay to say It’s me—even though verb to be and other so-called linking verbs do not “take” objects. Both sides of the clause are, strictly speaking, subjects  (Linking verbs = SVS!). But only a pretentious so-and-so would respond to Who’s there? with It is I! 

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Posted in Grammar Diaries

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