Me, myself and I, oh my

Published 9:33 am Thursday, September 21, 2017

Several of us refer to it as “administrator speech” and it is, unfortunately, becoming a little too common. I think that our rhetoric and composition teachers are reaching boiling point on this one and frankly, after all the time they spend trying to untangle strange grammatical constructions and help students master that tricky beast, standard English, I don’t blame them.

So when I received the following letter from my old aunt Eliza, who spent the best years of her life teaching sixth- and seventh-grade English grammar, I decided to pass it on to my readers. As you all know, I am moderately prescriptive. I do not believe in making people feel like outsiders to their own language, I want to invite everyone to see how language works and as a general practice, I certainly don’t encourage thumping people over the head with “grammar rules.” However, I do make one exception to this rule, and that is for people who have been well educated in the standard language and who often “laud their grammar knowledge” over others.

When it comes to this group, those who see themselves as custodians of the language, who don’t have any excuse for not following the rules, well, yes, when they aren’t following the very rules they advocate, I feel justified in taking a little bit more of a hard line approach. So, for that reason, I am sharing my Aunt Eliza’s letter with you. Feel free to cut it out and put it on the desk of any language custodians you feel need a little grammar review.

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Please do not use it to knock about those who may have never received a lot of training in the standard use of language.

Dear people responsible for sending memos, calling meetings, writing official letters and making announcements:

My name is Eliza Palmer. I am 81 years old and as a retired grammar teacher, I write to express my unease about your use of language. As you go about your daily routines of organizing, overseeing and communicating to the rest of us, please try to remember that “I” is a subject pronoun, “me” is an object pronoun and “myself” can be either a reflexive or an intensive pronoun. I am going to assume that you hold the first two functions fairly carefully in tow, but I believe I speak for a number of people when I say that your flagrant misuse of “myself” is a growing matter of concern. I have therefore appointed myself (please note the correct use of the reflexive) as the spokesperson for the proper use of English. It would be really wonderful if you “announcement people” would stop using “myself” as an object pronoun. Is it too much to hope that you would never use the same as a subject?

I respectfully request that you work diligently to keep these unsightly and uncalled for grammar bombs out of your announcements, emails and other written and oral communication.

The problem is that not only are you using them incorrectly, your misuse is setting a bad example for others, especially impressionable young people whose memories will record and fossilize egregious grammatical errors. I want to caution you that this is not a path that leads to a happy place. It is also causing a needless amount of hypertension and early retirements for my colleagues in rhetoric, composition and English who spend painful hours of their lives trying to undo such grammatical buffoonery. 

Now, I do understand that not all of you are guilty of misusing “myself,” but I urge those of you who do get these things right to try to help your “announcement kin” see the error of their ways and get this bad language habit under control. If a good talking to fails, please refer them to page 288 and page 852 of “The Bedford Handbook.”

I wish to state unequivocally that this is not about chastising people for non-standard uses of English. I agree with my niece, the linguist, on this one. It is, however, a small manifesto urging those of you with “announcement power,” you who have learned how to use standard language and who frequently worship at the altar of “good” English and praise the merits of such use, to practice what you preach.

Please use your announcements for the linguistic good and not to spread what is really quite ugly. I especially request that you refrain from sentences such as “The principal and myself are organizing a conference for future educators next week.” As tempting as it is to reinforce your presence in the sentence, you really need to put an “I” in place of “myself” in the sentence. Just stop and think about it. Would you really say, “Myself is organizing a conference?” If you feel strongly that an intensive is appropriate, then by all means compose your sentence as such: “Dr. Smiley, the principal, and I, myself, are organizing this much needed conference.” I also hope that you will work very hard to avoid saying or writing sentences such as, “Please contact John or myself after the meeting today.” I insist that you use “me” in this sentence. It may be helpful to try repeating to yourself 50 times a day: “Please contact John and me. Please contact John and me.” My niece has written an excellent article regarding the correct use of “me” with prepositions titled “Between you and I, a grammatical misfortune in the making.” You may want to read it. Carefully.

I would like to close my letter by encouraging you to use “myself” in grammatically sanctioned and safe positions such as the intensive: “I, myself, am hopeful that this is something you can learn” and the true reflexive: “I almost hurt myself laughing at the errors in your last memo.”

It is my sincerest hope that you will accept these suggestions in the same spirit that you expect others to receive your announcements. I, myself, invite you to contact me if you require more information, a mini-grammar review or an extra copy of “The Bedford Handbook.” You may write to me care of my niece, Dr. Julia Palmer, Department of Modern Languages, Hampden-Sydney College. All the best, Eliza W. Palmer.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is