Grammatically Speaking, March 2005

by Richard Firsten

Dear Mr. Firsten,

I have always considered myself to be a reflexive pronoun and to be used when referring to something you did to yourself (e.g., I cut myself). However, I hear many people say things like "Fill out the form and give it to Martha or myself." This drives me crazy, so much so that I have to quiet myself in order to keep from publicly reprimanding all of those who make this hideous grammar error. So, is it an error, or has it become acceptable to use myself in this way? One more thing: Is my use of commas in this text correct? I always agonize over the placement of commas.

Helen Scheidt
Fresno, California, United States

Dear Ms. Scheidt,

I can feel every bit of your angst! You and I share the same occupational hazard, reacting strongly when we hear blatant grammatical transgressions by native English speakers and feeling as if we'll explode if we don't make the transgressors aware of their errors. Such a fate!

Of course, you're absolutely correct about the misuse of reflexive pronouns, but this problem certainly isn't just a recent one. In the early 1980s, my mentor, John Staczek, now of Thunderbird University, presented an enlightening paper, entitled Self-Abuse, about this very issue at a TESOL convention.

The grammar rule is to use reflexive pronouns only when the subject and direct or indirect object are one and the same, as in your first example, but more and more the reflexive pronouns are used instead of the simple direct or indirect object pronouns, as demonstrated in your second example. The speaker should have said, "Fill out the form and give it to Martha or me."

Why is this happening with so much more frequency? One of the most prevalent theories is that there is something linguistically unsatisfying about using just the objective form of the personal pronouns--that somehow using the reflexive pronoun gives more importance or shows more respect or deference. Compare the options presented in this short dialogue:

A: How are you doing?
B: Fine, thanks. How about you?/How about yourself?

The subtlety at play is hard to describe, but it is felt by many native speakers. So, Ms. Scheidt, the second option is definitely not correct, grammatically speaking, but it's something we'll probably have to live with. I can't predict whether or not this use of reflexive pronouns will ever become accepted by grammarians, but I don't think it will go away.

One interesting side note has to do with the related use of himself and herself in Irish English slang. I recall hearing these terms used in many BBC television shows that portrayed servants in Victorian-era homes when referring to the master or mistress of the household. "Is Himself goin' to have dinner in tonight?" This term seems to have been used in a pseudo-deferential way, in lieu of the person's name. Could this oddity of Irish-English have given birth to the current misuse of reflexive pronouns? Hmm ....

Thanks for a very interesting observation and question, Ms. Scheidt. Oh, by the way, your use of the comma was just fine!

Dear Mr. Firsten,

I found this sentence in a novel in which the character is talking about a play that is finally coming together. "That was good, because we opened in two weeks." I wondered how one can use past tense (opened) to describe a future happening (in two weeks). The consensus of my English major friends is that it is simply wrong. I'm not sure it is, but I'm not sure why I'm not sure.

Sheila Monk
Richland, Missouri, United States

Dear Ms. Monk,

I may not have enough context to go on, but I'll give this a stab. Viewing the sentence at face value, I think it's perfectly fine. To begin with, the person in the novel is using the narrative style. The important point, however, is that time is a continuum; it's always moving. What was the future for one person can be the past for another person. That's the reason for indirect or reported speech in English, to account for the time continuum (She says she will ... /She said she would ...). In the first phrase, at the moment, both she and the "reporter" are in the same time slot, so the future is the same for both of them. In the second phrase, she is talking about something in her future, but at the moment of reporting, it is in the reporter's past.

Let's take your sentence and do the same thing to it: That's good, because we open in two weeks./That was good, because we opened in two weeks. Notice that the person in the novel is using the simple present for a scheduled event in his or her future, which is perfectly grammatical. Notice also how the narrator, or reporter, uses the simple past instead of the simple present when transferring that sentence into the narrative past to report what happened. As you can see, it works. I hope this shows you why the sentence in the novel is just fine. You should be glad to know that your hunch was right!

Thanks for this great question.

Dear Richard,

Can you please explain the deep structure of the following?

He's a new teacher.
The teacher is new.
He's an old teacher.
The teacher is old.

Thank you very much.

Rui Feng
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Dear Rui Feng,

It's not so much a matter of deep structure as it is a matter of meaning. The adjectives new and old have interesting meanings, as your examples so nicely demonstrate. First, newhas only one antonym, old, but old has two antonyms, new and young. This is where the fun comes in.

New can only have one interpretation in the noun phrase (a new teacher) or after the copula (The teacher is new). In these cases it means just starting, recently hired, or a novice.Of course, when talking about an object, new still has a related, similar meaning, such as in the noun phrase a new couch or the sentence That couch is new, meaning recently acquired.

Old, however, has two meanings, as I pointed out by showing its two antonyms. In your third example, there's a bit of ambiguity. When used in a noun phrase such as the one you gave, old can mean has been around for a relatively long time without referring to the person's age: Jim's an old teacher at our school. (For the sake of argument, let's say he's been at that school for twelve years and is only thirty-four years old.)

This would be the first interpretation of old because I'm describing a teacher, not just a man. The number of years he's been teaching at a certain school--rather than his age--is the first interpretation. Yes, you can stretch the meaning and say that technically you could be describing the teacher's age, but that really wouldn't be the first idea people would go with.

Using old after the copula lends itself to a first interpretation about age. The teacher is old makes you think right away of his age. In short, the reason you have more leeway with the interpretations of your third and fourth examples is that the two antonyms of old have come into play. Old before the noun can mean either the opposite of new or the opposite ofyoung. But in the examples you gave dealing with new, you only have one antonym to deal with, thereby lessening the possible meanings.

Thanks for such an amusing inquiry, Rui Feng! This is an interesting, tricky oddity of the language.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my Winter 2004 column. Look at these minidialogues:

A: Did the butcher weigh the chicken?
B: Yep. It weighs 6.5 lbs.

A: How much for this Toyota Camry, please?
B: The Camry sells for $18,300 fully loaded.

Hmm ... I understand that a butcher can weigh a chicken, so why is it that you can say the chicken weighs 6.5 lbs.? I thought people sold things; things don't sell themselves, do they? So how come it's okay to say the car sells for $18,300? What's going on? How would you explain this to your students?

The first acceptable response came from Linda Rousos of Tucson, Arizona, in the United States:

In basic terms, I would tell students that verbs like weigh and sell are further examples of verbs that can have two meanings, and that we usually do not use the continuous (progressive) form with those verbs when they have the second meaning (linking/intransitive use). I would show them how these verbs are similar to other nonaction verbs they've already seen (e.g., taste, smell, measure, look, cost). Also, I'd show them that you can paraphrase the sentences using the linking verb be, and the meaning will be pretty much the same. For example:

The chicken weighs 6.5 lbs. (~ The chicken is 6.5 lbs. *The chicken is weighing 6.5 lbs.)

The Camry sells for $18,300 fully loaded. (~The Camry is $18,300. The Camry is selling for $18,300. [You can say this, but it suggests a temporary or new price.])

The chicken tastes good. (~The chicken is good. *The chicken is tasting good.)

The wall measures 6 feet. (~ The wall is 6 feet. *The wall is measuring 6 feet.)

The Camry looks nice. (~The Camry is nice. *The Camry is looking nice.)

You've done a very nice job, Linda! The reason I enjoyed your answer so much is that you kept the explanation short and uncluttered, exactly what students need. The simpler and easier the explanation and examples, the more efficiently you'll get your idea across.

There's one point I'd like to add. A special class of verbs in English is referred to as pseudo-passives. These unusual verbs appear in the active voice, but their meaning is really in the passive voice. Happily, there aren't many of them!

I really appreciate the effort you put into this Brain Teaser. That's two Brain Teasers in a row, Linda. Bravo!

For the Brain Teaser in this issue, I'm going to do something a little different. I'd like to open up a forum to discuss something very interesting that is happening to the language. Read on, and then please send in your responses.

At least in American English, the strict rule that certain verbs can be used only in the simple present or simple past is changing to allow them to be used in the progressive (continuous) aspect.

Here are some cases in point: The currently favored slogan used in McDonald's commercials and ads is "I'm lovin' it." I've recently heard people say, for example, "They've been wanting a new house for a long time," "We're having to explain more than we'd like to," and "He's been needing to get a couple of root canals."

What do you think about those four sentences? Do you consider them acceptable or not? If you do, why? If you don't, why not? I'd love to hear your comments before I make my own, and I know all of my readers would love to hear them, too!

Please e-mail your answers to grammspeaking@aol.com, or send them by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33179 USA

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