Choosing the right pronoun to use when writing is harder than you might expect. Some pronouns serve several functions; some pronouns don’t change to show number or gender, and others seem redundant. There’s also social pressure to sound “sophisticated.” It’s no wonder writers are confused!
The Mistake of Misapplying Good Advice
One source of confusion is that, in middle school, our teachers told us not to use I in academic writing. Some teachers argued that using I sounded self-centered and uneducated; other teachers gave this advice to help students avoid giving weak opinions. Despite these good intentions, we now have a hard time knowing when to use me, myself, or I when we speak and write.
Here are some quick examples of correct and incorrect sentences with I, me, and myself. If you’re confused or curious about why they are right or wrong, read more below.
Pronoun Usage: Examples
If you need help, call Bob or myself.
If you need help, call Bob or me.
Bob and myself made the decision.
Bob and I made the decision.
The decision was made by Bob and myself.
The decision was made by Bob and me.
Bob helped Jane and I.
Bob helped Jane and me.
Bob helped Jane and myself.
Bob helped Jane and me.
Before we get into the complexities of personal pronouns, let’s refresh our memory on things we think we already know. Linguists usually focus on spoken language, so this article talks about “the speaker,” but these rules are the same for speaking and writing in English.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say I or Me
You’ve probably heard of first-person pronouns. First-person singular pronouns are I, me, my, and mine. They stand in for the name of the person speaking. Languages have these pronouns so speakers don’t have to keep saying their own names!
In a sentence like, “I walk,” the speaker (I) is the person doing the action. The I pronoun shows the subject or the actor. The speaker is the person acting in the sentence. In these cases, use I. (Technically, this usage is called nominative case.)
In a sentence like, “Bob called me,” the speaker (me) is the person receiving the action. That’s why the speaker uses a different pronoun. Something is happening to the speaker or is about the speaker, but the speaker is not acting in the sentence. Here, the correct pronoun is me. (Technically, this usage is called objective case in English.)
In a sentence like, “I trust myself,” the speaker is the person acting and receiving the action. That’s why the speaker says myself. Myself is a reflexive pronoun.
Reflexive Pronouns: So Nice You’ll Say It Twice!
What is a reflexive pronoun? Reflexive pronouns add -self or -selves to a possessive pronoun. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, reflexive means “directed or turned back on itself.” “Turned back” requires that the word myself “turns back” to the word I. If I is not already in the sentence, you can’t turn back to it. Thinking about the definition of reflexive may be more useful than trying to remember wordy grammar rules.
Reflexive pronouns refer back to the person doing the action in the sentence. Here’s an easy rule to remember about when you should not use myself:
If this is the first time you’ve referred to the speaker in the sentence, then myself is wrong.
Myself Is Not a Fancy Way to Avoid Me or I
Many writers make a mistake when they try to use myself as a formal way to say me or I. Some people think that myself sounds more polite and sophisticated than me a sentence like, “If you have questions, email Karen or myself.” (Incorrect)
The correct pronoun, though, is me, like in the sentence, “If you have questions, email Karen or me.” Remember that myself is a reflexive pronoun. You can use myself if you already have I in the sentence.
When to Use a Reflexive Pronoun
You can use myself to show that the same person acts and receives the action. Myself refers to a previously mentioned subject. I bought it for myself. I love myself. I trust myself. Note that myself follows I. I is the subject or the actor. And, here, myself serves as the object of the sentence. You use myself here because I and myself are the same person.
In a sentence like, “I help myself,” I and myself are talking about the same person. This sentence is also correct because myself is showing the receiver, not the actor. It’s the direct object, and it comes after the verb.
When Not to Use a Reflexive Pronoun
When confused about the differences between me, myself, and I, people often choose myself because they think it sounds more “polite” or “sophisticated.” Don’t be afraid to choose me and I when appropriate. It’s not rude—it’s grammatically correct.
Using Myself When You Need Me
It’s hard to know the difference between me and myself because they’re both objects. Remember that objects receive actions and don’t act. That rule, however, is the reason myself exists: we use myself instead of me when the person acting is the same person receiving the action.
Myself is not the right object unless I is the subject. People usually make this mistake when they’re giving commands, making suggestions, or telling people what to do.
In a sentence like, “Call me!” The hidden subject is you. It’s almost as if you’re saying, “(you) call me!” We don’t use you because we want to show that we’re making a command.
Here are some mistakes that English speakers don’t make:
Call myself! (Incorrect)
Give it to myself. (Incorrect)
“Call Bob or myself” is wrong in the same way that “Call myself” is wrong. I is not the subject. You is the hidden subject.
Using Myself When You Need I
People never mistakenly say, “Myself visited the office,” but many people incorrectly say things like, “Bob and myself visited the office.”
Myself is wrong here because the speaker is acting in the sentence. It’s also wrong because there’s no I in the sentence to match with myself. Remember that myself refers back to I, which must already be in the sentence.
Also, remember that English doesn’t change pronouns for politeness. Myself can never be a subject pronoun. You wouldn’t say “Myself will do it.” You correctly say, “I will do it.” Even if you’re talking about yourself and another person (we), the same rule applies. “Bob and myself made the decision” is wrong in the same way that “Myself made the decision” is wrong.
Here’s what you should remember: If you didn’t already say I in your sentence, you cannot use myself.
Using I When You Need Me
Longer objects can cause even experienced writers to choose the wrong pronouns. People often say things like, “The company gave Bill and I new computers.” The correct sentence, however, is “The company gave Bill and me new computers.”
In this sentence, the object (the people receiving the action) is longer. It’s not just one word or one person. The object is “Bill and me.” You already know that me is for objects, so you know that me is correct here. While writing and speaking, you can test your grammar by using only me or I in a longer sentence like this. You’d never say, “The company gave I new computers.” For the same reason, you don’t say “Bill and I” in this sentence.
Myself should not be used to sound “polite” or “sophisticated.” If you’re at work or a business gathering, using myself incorrectly will draw negative attention, and you will not be perceived as “polite” or “sophisticated.”
We all make mistakes, but in business, grammatical mistakes must be rare. For more lessons on pronouns, check out writing tips from WordRake founder and writing expert Gary Kinder, including Back to School with Her and I and On Behalf of Myself, then sign up to receive tips in your inbox. When you’re ready to apply our writing advice with one click, try WordRake free for 7 days.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2018, Ivy was recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.