September 05, 2005

Someone like me, someone such as myself

The reflexive pronoun myself used non-reflexively (without an antecedent in its clause) has been derogated for well over a hundred years -- see MWDEU, which summarizes the critical literature as follows:

Two general statements can be made about what these crtics say concerning myself: first, they do not like it, and second, they do not know why.  An index to their uncertainty can be found in this list of descriptors that they have variously attached to the practice: snobbish, unstylish, self-indulgent, self-conscious, old-fashioned, timorous, colloquial, informal, formal, nonstandard, incorrect, mistaken, literary, and unacceptable in formal written English.

Yet it is widespread in literary sources, and is "particularly popular" (MWDEU) after as, than, and like, as in this letter to the magazine Instinct (from Joseph Amodeo of Marlboro NY), September 2005, p. 16:

... I am writing to tell you how inspirational and uplifting your publication is for someone such as myself.

This is just the sort of use of myself that keeps making people's lists of Worst Errors in English Grammar, but it occurred to me that the variant "someone such as me" was inferior to Amodeo's "someone such as myself" -- but that "someone like me" would be better than "someone such as me".  I considered the possibility that, despite proscriptions, many speakers view myself as the upscale (fancier, more elegant) alternative to plain ol' me, in the same way that, thanks to instruction to replace like as a conjunction by as, they view such as as the upscale alternative to plain ol' like.  If so, there should be a concordance effect, with such as preferring myself and like preferring me.  And so there is, pretty spectacularly.

First, there's a clear preference for myself over me with such as.  In raw Google web hits:

myself/me ratio
such as...

There's no easy way to compare like to such as in general, since searches on like myself and like me produce so many spurious hits.  But somewhat more constrained searches avoid this problem:

myself/me ratio
people such as...
people like...
someone such as...
someone like...

Myself continues to dominate me with such as, by a factor of between 5 and 6.  The figures for like are just the reverse, with me dominating myself  by a factor of between 5 and 10.

So there certainly is a concondance effect.  You might want to argue with my interpretation in terms of an upscale/plain distinction, but the effect looks very robust. 

The careful reader will have noted that I'm suggesting that myself as the object of a preposition is perceived, by many speakers, as more upscale than me despite proscriptions, while such as is perceived, by many speakers, as more upscale than like in part because of proscriptions.  That is, my interpretations look inconsistent.  In fact, I believe that the inconsistency is in the speakers, not in my explanations: there's no reason to think that people respond in the same way to every explicit instruction in grammar.  Instead, they'll shift towards whichever variant they believe to be more appropriate in the context, and such shifts will sometimes run counter to proscriptions and sometimes conform to them.

In the world of pronoun forms, nominative conjoined objects -- the between you and I sort of thing so disdained by critics of usage -- are seen by many speakers to be upscale, and they'll shift towards them when they're taking care with their language, as when a British biologist being interviewed on the PBS program Origins (seen 8/30/05) explains, "For you and I, that's not a very exciting diet", or when a woman in a Prairie Home Companion comedy skit (heard 8/27/05, rebroadcast from 9/04) tells us, "These are the good days for Jim and me -- or Jim and I, as I used to say when I went to college." I'm suggesting that non-reflexive uses of myself are much like this.

On the other hand, like has no elegance points on its own, and it's been contaminated by instruction designed to steer speakers away from things like "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should."  So people shift away from the preposition like, towards such as, when they're taking care with their language.

Different effects in different contexts.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 5, 2005 10:26 PM