Self service

I’ll go my way by myself, this is the end of romance.
I’ll go my way by myself, love is only a dance.
I’ll try to apply myself and teach my heart how to sing.
I’ll go my way by myself like a bird on the wing,
I’ll face the unknown, I’ll build a world of my own;
No one knows better than I, myself, I’m by myself alone.

“By Myself,” lyrics by Howard Dietz

This song was heard in New York last fall in “The Band Wagon” at City Center’s Encores! series and sung by Fred Astaire in the 1953 film. (Too young to know who Astaire was? Only one of the greatest dancers of the 20th-century stage and screen.) It’s not just a wistful reflection on “the end of romance.” It illustrates a grammar point: reflexives.

A reflexive is any of those pronouns including the syllable -self or -selves: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves, oneself. (Never hisself and theirselves, which sound uneducated.) It’s a pronoun referring back to the subject of the sentence, clause or phrase; according to, “the action in a sentence or clause happens to the person or thing that does the action.” In other words, he does it to himself.

Now, back to the song, which makes a distinction between myself and by myself. When Astare sings, “I’ll try to apply myself,” he’s using the reflexive as a direct object: apply (one)self is an idiom meaning to focus on a task and work on it. (Students may hear from exasperated parents or teachers: “If you’d just apply yourself, you’d be passing the course.”) When he sings, “No one knows better than I, myself,” it’s for emphasis.

But be careful with by myself, which means, as the end of the song makes clear, alone. Non-native English-speakers often assume by myself means the same thing as myself; in recent weeks, I’ve heard students from Brazil, Italy, Spain and Poland use by myself incorrectly. If you wrote a story yourself, you did it without help. (If you’re ever accused of plagiarism — falsely, we at the J-school fervently hope — the appropriate response is,  “Of course I wrote it myself!”) If you wrote it by yourself, you were alone when you wrote it.

One of my private students makes a recurring mistake in sentences like “Now I have to do everything by myself”and “She can take care of her children by herself.” While the subject of each may in fact by physically alone, the reflexive really means without help. So she should drop the by.

An incoming member of the class of 2016 wrote:

But the final “Yes” came after Glenn D. Lowry, Director of MOMA, saw by himself a big exhibition organized by the Torres García Museum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Unless Lowry was alone when he saw the exhibition, she meant Lowry himself saw it.

Some examples of correct usage from international students during spring semester:

His sisters, mother and Cabrera himself don’t give identical versions of his story. Correct because himself is used for emphasis

She doesn’t see herself coding all her life. Correct because the reflexive is the direct object; she is performing the action (doesn’t see) on herself.

Similarly: She certainly considers herself an adult. 

From a cover letter by a student applying for an internship: I am attending classes including “Introduction to Documentary Film,” taught by Yoruba Richen, a documentarian herself. Here the reflexive is used to  emphasize Richen’s qualifications to teach the course.

A quote from a profile: “I’d much rather help someone be great than be doing great things myself,” she said. Again a matter of emphasis.

From an Tow-Knight fellow’s blog post: I’ve always led the definition of our mobile products . . . . building all the mobile wireframes of our apps myself. Meaning she did it personally.

One more caveat about reflexives: don’t use one if a regular pronoun will do. A Penn State student, speaking on TV about his lawsuit charging that the university ignored fraternity hazing, spoke of “the abuse that myself and others were repeatedly experiencing.” Granted, he was under stress (and not writing for The Daily Collegian), so lapses in grammar are understandable. But he should have said I and others.




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