Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dancing with Myself

Posted by Neal on September 30, 2009

In the evenings, my wife and I will sit watching TV, which is when I see episodes of various shows I’ve mentioned here. Often I’ll be working on the computer, and when I’m really trying to focus on something, I won’t want to watch something that will distract me. Those are the nights when my wife turns on the stuff I don’t care about, like Burn Notice or Glee. Or Dancing with the Stars. I should be more interested in that show, since ballroom dancing was a good portion of my social life in college—and is even how my wife and I met. But the competitive dancing on that show is not much like the social dancing I learned in college.

Ah, yes, ballroom dancing in college. And that one time when correcting someone’s grammar caused me a lot of embarrassment. Not just retrospective embarrassment, as I look back on it; embarrassment right then. I remember it like it was about 20 years ago, because it was about 20 years ago… [cue wavy screen]

The University Ballroom Dance Society was forgoing its usual outing to the Austin Ballroom Dancers Saturday night dance, and instead was taking a road trip to a Christmas dance in San Antonio. The members were gathering in the lobby of the undergraduate library before we all got in our cars and hit the road. I’d gotten there a little earlier, and so had a member named Michelle. Michelle was nice: a friendly dance partner with a sense of humor that I appreciated. We’d even gone out once on our own, to see a play. I was glad she’d arrived early, because I’d gotten her a Christmas present; nothing fancy, just a book that she’d mentioned she wanted to read that I had made a mental note of. So I was able to give it to her before everyone else was there.

Pretty soon, the other members started coming in, including Chad, the club president. When it seemed like everyone who was going had arrived, Chad began reviewing the travel arrangements.

“Maddie, Ed, Deanna, and Jennifer are riding together,” said Chad. “Michelle will be riding with myself, and …”

With myself? I thought. Why was Chad talking in that pompous way? Why didn’t he just say with me? This kind of myself-abuse was one of my grammar peeves.

Syntacticians have a name for what Chad did, but it’s not a very well-chosen name. They call it a Principle A violation. If I had named it, I would have called Principle A the Reflexive Rule. It’s the rule that says that in Standard English (and other languages, too), reflexive pronouns are used when a grammatical object of a verb or preposition refers to someone already mentioned earlier in the same clause. For example, you can say Neal talked to himself to mean that Neal talked to Neal. You can’t say *Neal said that Glen talked to himself to mean that (according to Neal), Glen talked to Neal. In fact, the principle is a bit subtler than that. The vague part about “someone already mentioned earlier in the same clause” will still give the OK to ungrammatical sentences like *The father of the bride talked about herself—after all, the bride was mentioned earlier in the clause, right? But you get the general idea.

The flip side of Principle A is that ordinary personal pronouns can’t refer to something mentioned earlier in the clause. You can say Neal talked to him, but it can’t mean that Neal talked to Neal—him has to refer to someone else. This rule is called Principle 2. Just kidding; it’s Principle B.

So by Principles A and B, Chad would have used the ordinary pronoun me, instead of myself. But he did use myself, so what’s up with that? CGEL calls this an override use of the reflexive. In fact, even these violations follow some rules. For one thing, they are by and large restricted to first- and second-person reflexives. You’ll hear sentences like Please bring any concerns you have to myself, or Diane and yourself will be in charge of the preparations, and maybe find them stilted or even ungrammatical. But a sentence like I submitted the report to himself is decidedly worse, possibly because me and myself refer to the same person, as do you and yourself, whereas there’s a whole world of different people that him and himself could be referring to. Put another way, Neal talked to me and Neal talked to myself mean the same thing, though they’re stylistically different. The same goes for Neal talked to you and Neal talked to yourself. But Neal talked to him and Neal talked to himself encode different meanings, which makes it harder to replace a him with himself.

I wasn’t thinking of any of that the time. As far as I was concerned, Chad’s use of myself was not only a mistake, but a mistake that needed to be corrected, by me, then and there.

I never liked this song.“With me,” I interrupted.

“What?” Chad asked.

“Michelle will be riding with me.”

“No-o-o,” Chad said, looking puzzled as he reviewed the drivers and riders in his head. “Michelle will be riding with me.”

“He’s correcting your grammar,” Michelle told him. “You said ‘with myself.’” But even the clarification from Michelle—who had dated Chad the previous year, by the way—couldn’t completely erase the pathetic impression of a jealous loser, stepping up to challenge Chad for the privilege of driving Michelle to the dance. I still cringe when I think about it. Luckily, I have much more embarrassing memories to draw on to make this one not so bad.

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6 Responses to “Dancing with Myself

  1. I was going to criticize your taste in television shows (Burn Notice and Glee are 100 times better than Dancing with the Stars), but your extraneous invocation of both Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson made me change my mind.

    • Neal said

      I don’t care much for DWTS, either, but I see that my wording left it open as to who chose to watch it. I’ve revised that part, so that it now clearly conveys that that show was my wife’s choice, not mine!

  2. The Ridger said

    Ah, except when “Himself” means the man of the house…😉

  3. It bugs me, too. But these foibles seem to indicate a mind interested in the soul of language.

    As for taste in TV shows, well, I tune into Psych…

  4. Blar said

    It sounds like Michelle knew you well, if she recognized so readily that you were just correcting his grammar.

  5. Thanks for the chuckle.

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