Me, myself and I: Keep them straight for clear meaning

Easy guidelines for knowing when to use which.

Editor’s note: Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Many people seem to be so afraid to misuse the words “me” and “I,” that they substitute “myself” in all kinds of inappropriate places.

It’s common to hear people say things like this: Please contact Squiggly, Aardvark, or myself with questions. Here’s why that’s wrong: The position of Squiggly, Aardvark, and the incorrect “myself” in the sentence are the object position, and “me” is the object pronoun you use to refer to yourself in a sentence like that.

An easy solution

The quick and dirty tip to get it right is to think about how you would say the sentence without Squiggly and Aardvark.

So here we go. You’d probably say, “Please contact me.”

I don’t know why people mess it up more when there are multiple people in the sentence, but they do. It’s not as if I’ve never heard anyone say, “Please contact myself,” but that kind of error is much more rare.

So once you know how to figure it out with just one person, you simply add in the other people: Please contact Squiggly, Aardvark, and me with questions. (You always put yourself last in a series like that.)

I’ is the subject pronoun

Is the rule any different when you’re dealing with the subject of a sentence? No, but I hear errors like this all the time: Aardvark and myself will quench the fire.

That’s wrong because Aardvark and the incorrect “myself” are in the subject position, and “I” is the subject pronoun you use to refer to yourself.

Again, try the one-person-limit test. The sentence is “I will quench the fire.” Once you have that, you can start adding in other people, again, keeping yourself last in the list: Aardvark and I will quench the fire.

‘Myself’ is the reflexive pronoun

So by now you’re probably asking when is it OK to use “myself”?

The word “myself” is what’s called a reflexive pronoun. Think about looking in a mirror and seeing your reflection. You’d say, “I see myself in the mirror.”

You see your reflection, and “myself” is a reflexive pronoun.

Other reflexive pronouns include “himself,” “herself,” “yourself,” “itself,” “themselves,” and so on.

You use reflexive pronouns to refer to the subject of a sentence again, later in the sentence. For example, you could say, “I see myself playing marimbas,” or, “I’m going to treat myself to a mud bath.” In both these cases you are the object of your own action; the subject is “I” and you use “myself” to refer back to that “I.”

You probably have noticed that “myself” is in the object position in the sentence “I see myself,” but I said earlier that “me” was the object pronoun.

Here’s the rub. You use regular object pronouns when the subject and object are different, and the reflexive pronoun when they are the same. That’s why it’s right to say both “I saw him,” and “He saw himself.”

In “I saw him,” the subject and object are different people, so you use the object pronoun, “him.”

In “He saw himself,” the subject and object are the same person, so you use the reflexive pronoun, “himself.”

Again, it can help to remember the reflection analogy for reflexive pronouns. You have the real person (the subject) and the reflection (the object that is a reflexive pronoun).

‘Myself’ is also an intensive pronoun

Reflexive pronouns can also be used to add emphasis to a sentence. (In case you care, then they’re called intensive pronouns.) For example, if you had witnessed a murder, you could say, “I myself saw the madman’s handiwork.” It’s dramatic, but it’s also grammatically correct.

If you want to emphasize how proud you are of your new artwork, you could say, “I painted it myself.” Again, “myself” just adds emphasis. The meaning of the sentence doesn’t change if you take out the word “myself”; it just has a different feeling because now it lacks the added emphasis.

This article originally ran on in January 2011.

Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings LLC.

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