The ‘Myself’ Epidemic: When to Correctly use ‘myself’, ‘me’ and ‘I’

OK, well I’ll confess straight away that I’m a stickler for correct grammar.  But it is my job and getting it right is important when it comes to earning (most) of my money. If I don’t edit a book well … then who is going to give me work?

As I’ve written here before, language and spelling are forever changing. You can see this immediately you pick up an old book, written perhaps in the early to mid-20th century, and spellings (if not updated) are different; the use of some words is different or even obsolete.  Frankly, you notice it when you’re my age! Younger people use some words in a different way. But while different publishing houses have different house styles, which allows for a certain personal preference, there is a large core of correct grammar to which all will adhere.  Enter ‘myself’.

There seems to be a epidemic of people misusing ‘myself’ and, to be honest, as a book editor to whom these things matter, it drives me slightly crazy.  Even BBC radio and TV presenters use it incorrectly. I’m not talking about informal, chatty programmes, where a certain relaxation is not only OK but generally desired. No, I’m talking about the News and other serious programmes. There are regional differences, of course.  For example, I’m aware that in some parts of the country ‘myself’ is used differently to the way those of us living in London use it. But this tends to be in the spoken word.

I can quite understand that many people will not care, or will wonder why on earth I’m making a fuss about this. But if you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you either hope to be or are a writer, or you have a keen interest in the written word. And knowing whether the written word is grammatically correct is important – even if you don’t always write that way.

A common misuse I hear is: ‘Myself and my mum’ or ‘My friend and myself’. No: ‘My mum and I‘ and ‘My friend and I‘.  Another example of misuse is, ‘The waiter gave my friend and myself cups of coffee’, which should be: ‘The waiter gave my friend and me cups of coffee‘.  And no, it wouldn’t be ‘… my friend and I’ either. To immediately see this is incorrect, try saying ‘the waiter gave I a cup of coffee’. It’s easier to see that’s wrong. Taking out the other person in the sentence often lets you see whether the sentence works or not. For example, if you say: ‘Myself and John went to the cinema’ and take out ‘John’, you’d have, ‘Myself went to the cinema’ – which you can immediately see is incorrect; nor would you say (if you were being grammatically correct), ‘John and me went to the cinema’ – trying testing it: ‘Me went to the cinema’. That doesn’t sound at all right. You’d say, ‘I went to the cinema‘ so it’s ‘John and I went to the cinema‘.

The use of ‘myself’ is correct when it’s used as a reflexive pronoun – when the person is both the subject and the object. ‘Myself’ reflects the subject: ‘I told myself‘, ‘I dressed myself‘. It can also be used for emphasis: ‘I made it myself‘ – but here you can see that just ‘I made it’ would be OK.

The same rules apply to ‘yourself’: ‘I look forward to seeing you‘ not ‘I look forward to seeing yourself’.

If you’re writing a novel, then you might use words like ‘myself’ in a grammatically incorrect way in speech, depending on the character. As a copy-editor, I have to make a decision about whether it’s appropriate – or simply the author not being grammatically correct. However, if you’re writing something important and formal – like a business letter, perhaps – I believe it’s always important to get the grammar right. Hopefully this little blog post will help!

Laurie Lee: A Rose for Winter

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I’ve recently been to Malaga and when I’m away, I like to take along a novel or travel book set wherever I’m heading. I actually bought Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter last year to take to Granada, and indeed read that chapter while there. Planning my reading for Malaga, I couldn’t find anything actually set in the city, but as Lee’s book is about Andalucia then I thought I should give it another airing and read more. In the end, I became captivated by his writing and read the whole thing (not actually very long at 112 pages), including the ‘Granada’ chapter again.

Lee (aged 37) and his wife Kati set off to Andalucia in the winter of 1951 and travelled around the area for 4 months. Lee had been there 15 years before, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Thus the ‘new’ journey with Kati revisits some of the ‘old’ places and people from the earlier trip. He was a successful poet by now and making some money from it, but they still had to travel on a budget and walked most of the way, stayed in cheap hotels or lodgings, and Laurie made some extra money from busking with his violin. He was working on Cider with Rosie, his most famous and successful book, but it wasn’t published until 1959.

I think it is because Lee is a poet that his writing is so poetically wonderful. Laurie and Katie visit five places in the book, including Seville and Granada. It’s not a travel book in the sense of being a guide or giving historical background and discussing the major sights. Lee doesn’t even discuss the politics of the day much (and this is the age of Franco). It’s about a personal journey and the book shimmers with radiant life and truly transports you to Andalucia and gives you an insight into the land and its people. It opens: ‘A brilliant November morning with a sky of diamond blue above the bay and the red flowers of a long summer still glowing darkly on the rock‘ and the country they had come to seek ‘crouched before us in a great ring of lion-coloured mountains, raw, sleeping and savage.’

Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘perhaps the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow.’ Of Seville he writes: ‘Seville of sweet wines and bitter oranges … the city where, more than in any other, one may bite on the air and taste the multitudinous flavours of Spain … acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening, but flavours which, above all in a synthetic world, are real as nowhere else.

Allowances have to be made for the book’s age and sometimes it seems dated. It has also been criticised for employing some ‘poetic’ licence, yet don’t the best travel books do this? If you want pure facts, read the guide book or history book; A Rose for Winter is about the experience and feeling of being in southern Spain in the 1950s and even in the 21st century it provides a wonderful backdrop to any visit to Andalucia and Lee’s writing is pure literary joy.

Language & Spelling – Ever Changing and Evolving

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I have to confess to being rather OTT about spelling. But then it is my job. It’s my job as an editor to check that all spellings throughout a book are both consistent and correct. Although ‘correct’ is not always clear because sometimes there are variations with how words are spelled. Well, there’s our first example: ‘spelled’ or ‘spelt’? Actually both are correct but as an editor it’s important to make sure the choice of either -ed or -t endings are consistent throughout a book rather than use a mix.

Publishing houses have their own ‘House Style’ and this is always sent to me, and while mostly the same, there are variations. For instance, one publisher I often work for likes to use -ize endings for words like realize, organize, etc., while most UK publishers prefer -ise endings, so realise and organise. But some words can’t interchange – always, for example, advise, advertise, exercise, etc.

Then there is the need to understand the difference between using a word as a verb or noun and this affects the spelling:

  • You give advice to someone; but you advise them to do something
  • A doctor practises medicine; but you visit their medical practice.

You can see that while we’ve only just started, things are already getting a little tricky. But throw into that the growing influence of US spellings and terms in UK as more and more we read books by US authors and watch US films. And thus spellings like ‘alright’ (always 2 words, ‘all right’, in UK) and words like ‘gotten’ (instead of UK ‘got’) start creeping into UK books. I often proofread American books and usually the US spellings are left unchanged; though – perhaps slightly weirdly – UK publishers usually like to change the punctuation to UK. Yes, that’s different too.

Of course, it may well be that only editors mind about these things. But it brings up the question of how much we allow our language to change. At the extreme end, I like to say to people who think none of it matters, that if we abandon all care of spellings then we’ll end up in a state where we can’t communicate properly. Of course change is inevitable – or we would still be writing and talking like Shakespeare or the Saxons. We also need new words as time goes by. It’s only in fairly recent years we’ve needed words like modem, wireless router, tablet – as in an iPad not a stone tablet from an ancient site or a painkiller – and even smartphone; some of the words added to the 2018 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary include co-parenting, e-address, e-publisher and hangry (being angry and hungry at the same time!). And words change use: when I was a child being ‘gay’ meant being happy  and carefree while now we usually think of it as a term for being homosexual (which, of course, can also mean being happy and carefree!).

Mostly the changes come slowly and we’re barely aware of them. So I’m often surprised if I have to work on a old book that is being reissued, written say in the 1950s or 1960s, to find the spelling and punctuation seem very old-fashioned. I find ‘hallo’ or ‘hullo’ instead of ‘hello’; there are usually a lot more commas breaking up sentences than we would use today. I realise that slowly, through many years working as a book editor, I’ve subtly altered the way I edit. I’m fortunate to work for top publishers and that keeps me on my toes and up to date!

On top of our evolving and ever-changing language we must add things like ‘textspeak’. When we first had texts the number of characters used in one text was limited so people invented ‘textspeak’ to keep a text to one instead of paying for two. This is now outdated but people still use ‘tonite’ and abbreviations like ‘ILY’ (I love you). I have to confess that some of these grate on me … tonite … grrrr! And if someone sent a text saying ILY it really wouldn’t have the same nice impact as the words! But I’m willing to admit that with my editorial background, and the fact that words and their correct use and spelling is my job, I’m probably more intolerant than most people.

However, when it comes to working I do have to take account of all these things and apart from using The Concise Oxford Dictionary to check spellings, my absolute ‘bible’, and used by all publishers, is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors. When I edit a book, I have to provide a Spellings & Style list of my references and spellings used; whether I’ve used -ed or -t endings etc. So I think my family and friends are going to have to continue to live with me being rather OTT about spelling!

 

 

David Michie: The Dalai Lama’s Cat

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It may be some time since I wrote here about what books I’ve been reading but I can assure you the reading has been happening. It’s just a question of some being for work, some being for my book group (that has its own blog) and some I just didn’t feel inspired enough to write about and recommend.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat was irresistible to me. I first spied it on my daughter’s book shelves but decided to buy my own copy rather than borrow hers. I’m pleased I did because it’s a book that deserves more than one reading but also I’ve always had a weakness for wanting to have my own copy of books I enjoy a lot. I remember discussing this over lunch with another book editor once. We’d both bought books we’d borrowed from others and loved, just to have our own copies!

This book was irresistible because 1, it was about cats, and I’m a devoted cat lover (as my own cat Bella would attest to if asked, I’m quite certain), and 2, I’ve had a long interest in Buddhism and have also taught mindfulness meditation (part of some alternative health work I do).  The Dalai Lama’s Cat is categorised as a ‘novel’ by its publishers, but being Hay House, which was founded by the late and wonderful Louise Hay, then it was bound to have a spiritual element to it.

It really is a delightful book. It’s deceptively light in reading but full of wisdom and humour. There are wonderful, vivid descriptions of life within the Dalai Lama’s home, the Namgyal Monastery in Mcleod Ganj, India, and a host of colourful characters who are part of his – and later the kitten’s – life.  When the Dalai Lama notices a stray and injured kitten on the streets of New Dehli, he gets his driver to stop and the little kitten is carefully taken back to the monastery. Here, in a home filled with love and the privilege of being able to sleep at the bottom of the Dalai Lama’s bed and sit during the day in his office, HHC (His Holiness’s Cat, a.k.a Snow Lion) learns many of life’s lessons according to the Buddhist way of thinking. For anyone who wants to know more about Buddhist teachings this is a wonderfully accessible way to learn more and it’s a story told with love and happiness. I enjoyed it so much I’ve ordered the next 2 books in the trilogy: The Art of Purring and The Power of Meow. How could any cat lover resist!!

Ian McEwan: Nutshell

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Ian McEwan has been one of my favourite writers for many years; perhaps he is even my very favourite writer. I find his books both scintillatingly engaging right from the start, but sometimes so painful and often macabre that I can remember once, years and years ago – perhaps it was The Cement Garden? – I had to stop reading it on the train home from work and wait until later to finish it. Or maybe it was The Child in Time, recently made into an excellent TV film starring Benedict Cumberbatch? The story of every parent’s nightmare: taking your eyes from a small child for just one moment, to pay for something in a shop, and wham! The child is gone and your life will never be the same.

Nutshell also brings a lot of wham! bang! OMG! shocks. And it hooks you in from the very first two sentences: ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.’ This is McEwan at his most inventive: a brilliant retelling of Hamlet but from the perspective of a ‘Hamlet’ in the womb, waiting to be born, all too aware of what’s going on outside. Gertrude becomes Trudy; Claudius is Claude. As the unborn Hamlet gradually realises that his mother and uncle are plotting to kill his father, we are witness to his dreadful dilemma: horror at what is planned and the child’s strong yearning to love their parent. And, of course, Hamlet is all about revenge, so how will this unborn child avenge the murder of his father? Well, I won’t spoil the ending, though of course we know how the story plays out, but this time in McEwan’s unique and chilling way. I found this a totally compelling, clever, suspenseful read but full too of wonderful humour that made me actually laugh. Highly recommended.