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Me, Myself and I
By COLLIN LEVY
The Wall Street Journal
January 14, 2008; Page A13
After months of presidential primary debates, town-hall meetings and cable talkathons, I hate myself. And I mean that in the most old-fashioned way.
For all the rhetorical flourish on display, many of the presidential candidates still don’t have a grip on the King’s English. That great American personal pronoun, the first person singular, which adorns nearly every sentence of candidate discourse, is still too slippery for many of this year’s White House aspirants.
Speaking on Social Security, Democrat hopeful Barack Obama boasted that “here’s an area where John (Edwards) and myself were actually quite specific.” A few minutes later, Bill Richardson wondered, “What is wrong with having been like myself — 14 years in the Congress, two Cabinet positions?”
Campaigning is certainly exhausting in a primary homestretch, which may explain this gem from Mitt Romney: “It is going to take a person who is himself an innovator like myself who has the experience to bring change to Washington.” Republican contender Ron Paul noted proudly that “We have a lot of similarities . . . Barack Obama and myself, because our campaigns are made up of young people.”
The new verbal tic is part trend and part defensive posture. Since the Me Generation, “I” and “me” have become increasingly tangled up as Americans have looked for ways around tricky constructions. As sportswriter Red Smith once put it, “Myself is the foxhole of ignorance, where cowards take refuge, because they were taught that me is vulgar and I is egotistical.” In the same spirit, “myself” has become the campaign’s de rigueur grammar cop-out, substituted for I or me when the candidate isn’t sure which is accurate — or worse, assumes Americans will see proper English as elitist.
Yet grammar still matters to a lot of Americans. Potential employers often report they are put off by job applicants who display bad spelling or grammar — taking it as a sign of sloppiness, inattention to detail or lack of IQ. Why shouldn’t voters hold the next leader of the free world to similar standards? Especially since, as Richard Lederer, former usage editor of the Random House Dictionary points out, when candidates “chicken out and use ‘myself'” in place of I or me, “it shows an inability to take a stand” — and isn’t that something voters should care about?
The stakes are high, and the wrong pronoun can even change the meaning of a sentence. In his New Hampshire victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, John McCain told a cheering crowd, “Enjoy this. You have earned it more than me.” (When he presumably meant, you have earned it more than I have.)
The misuse of “I” took its own toll on Bill Clinton in 1992. Running against then incumbent President George H. W. Bush, Gov. Clinton famously said: “If you want a spring in your step and a song in your heart, give Al Gore and I a chance to bring America back.” The mistake spawned a pretty good media lashing, as it should have. New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in his language column, “Between you and me — never you and I . . . the best answer is ‘Give I a break.'”
By the time the 1996 debates came around, the president learned his lesson and dumbed it down. At the podium, Mr. Clinton remarked on the “big differences between Sen. Dole and myself.”
Not that the 2008 candidates can’t find support from the more flexible sort of grammarian for their innovative usage of “myself.” One school of lexicographer holds that proper English is however people use it. So, though the classically-approved usage of “myself” is as an intensive (“I myself feel that way”) or reflexive (“I hurt myself”), several dictionaries approve its “informal use” as an all-purpose substitute for “I” or “me.” What’s next, ketchup on hot dogs?
Defenders of heterodoxy say the casual usage has been around for centuries, finding mention in dusty old texts of Chaucer and other reputable English and American writers. But its growing use is intensely controversial among grammarians. “People who are shaky in their grammar think of “myself” as a safe usage,” says Bryan Garner, former editor of Oxford’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “but to a real snoot, it’s bothersome.”
To handle the skirmish, dictionaries now include tortured “Usage notes” on the casual version. The 2006 American Heritage Dictionary, referring to its in-house advisers, points out that “a large majority of the Usage Panel disapproves of the use of -self pronouns when they do not refer to the subject of the sentence.”
One imagines a lot of furniture being broken up by American Heritage’s more liberal experts. The dictionary goes on to say, “Seventy-three percent (of panel members) reject the sentence ‘He was an enthusiastic fisherman like myself.'” The Panel is even less tolerant of compound usages. Eighty-eight percent find this sentence unacceptable: ‘The boss asked John and myself to give a brief presentation.'”
Despite the excessive presence of “myself” in the current race, its emergence in political campaigning is not recent. John F. Kennedy used “myself” awkwardly once in his debate with Richard Nixon on Oct. 7, 1960, remarking on “the issue between Mr. Nixon and myself.” Jimmy Carter used “myself” once in his October 1976 debate with President Gerald Ford, noting that “I think that we’ll have good results on November the second for myself and I hope for the country.”
Presidential campaigns have been dotted with stories of candidates maligned for misspellings and malapropisms memorable enough to define a political career. (See former Vice President Dan Quayle, whose misspelling of potato(e) in the days before spell-checkers turned him into a national punch line.) The most notorious of these has probably been President George W. Bush. So in the pronoun sweepstakes, he must be the worst offender of all, right?
He’s not. Referring to his own grammatical quirks in a debate with Al Gore, the then Texas governor’s usage was impeccable. “Well, we all make mistakes,” he said, “I’ve been known to mangle a syllable or two myself.”
Ms. Levy is a senior editorial writer at the Journal, based in Washington.