Me, myself, and I ... won't give up!

"Call myself Ishmael."

If "Moby-Dick" had begun this way, the course of American literature (and the fate of lots of trees) would have been permanently altered. With an opening like that, no reader would have bothered with the second sentence.

Likewise, much current communication has become sludgy with the creeping loss of the short, crisp syllables "me" and "I" and the insertion of the glaze-inducing and misused "myself." It is garbling our language and leaving a lot of people sounding downright silly.

In the office you'll hear a business trip announced thus: "Kate and myself are going to Dallas." Or your morning greeting of "How are you?" will be met with: "Not bad. And yourself?"

My self? Why do people want to know about my self? Morning is no time for such existential quizzing.

Does this linguistic laxness matter? Well, just imagine:

If Helen Reddy had sung "Myself Am Woman," far from becoming a feminist anthem, the song would have set the movement back, perhaps irretrievably.

If Douglas MacArthur had declared "Myself shall return," the Philippines might have politely said good riddance and opted for continued Japanese occupation during World War II.

"Myself thinks, therefore myself am" would have rendered Descartes nonexistent.

With "Now Ourselves Are Six," A.A. Milne would have turned generations of children off of reading.

And think of the unlovely love songs: "Till There Was Yourself" or "Myself Gets a Kick Out of Yourself." Such glop would smother the spark in any romance.

Now, on the flip side, if Queen Victoria had sniffed, "Ourselves are not amused," such a royal reflexive would have enhanced the pronouncement's air of regal disdain.

But does it matter?

Descriptive grammarians will say: What is, is. The language will evolve and take care of itself. Prescriptive grammarians will say, "the rule is ... " and expect standards to be upheld. Usually I'm with the linguistic Darwinists, but on this one my ear tells me to hold the line.

Misused "myselfs" and "yourselfs" are like fingernails across the chalkboard, and I wonder how so many others could have lost their ear for the language.

All those extra "selfs" sound self-important - like speakers trying to dress themselves up with lots of syllables. Other people are just plain unsure: Is it "me" or "I"? They fear "I" as too proper and "me" as too informal. So they retreat to the illusory safety of "myself."

"I" and "me" are short, direct, clear. The reflexive pronoun "myself" is long and muddled, except when used to show that the one on the receiving end was also the one on the doing end, as in "I kicked myself for saying that."

But does it really matter?

Yes. Language is a powerful tool, capable of both clarifying and confusing. Both uses are valid. In advertising, politics, or education, it is vital to communicate what you intend, whether that is clarity or confusion. And those on the receiving end had better be able to perceive the difference. Careless confusion only makes the perceiving more difficult.

Perhaps being imprecise is the whole point. We've all certainly heard leaders who are unintelligible. "Myself," by sounding so impersonal, can take the light of scrutiny off the "I" who speaks. Does it, then, like other vague locutions, also mask the responsibility for the speaker's words and actions? In an expanding information age, I suspect we should suspect those whose words confuse us.

Language is a wonderful thing, like a paintbrush. How we use it determines whether we get bright colors or dull sludge.

Brian Williams, a former English teacher, writes for the Vidette Times of Valparaiso, Ind.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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