From the reflexives files

From Steven Weinberg‘s article “Why the Higgs?”, New York Review of Books 8/16/12, p. 78, two conjoined objects with a personal pronoun as 2nd conjunct. First, in par. 5, with the first 1sg pronoun in the piece:

This is what happens in the theory of weak and electromagnetic forces proposed in 1967–1968 by Abdus Salam and myself.

and then, in par. 8, after an occurrence of Salam and I as subject:

One of the consequences of theories in which symmetries are broken by scalar fields, including the models considered by Goldstone and the 1964 papers and the electroweak theory of Salam and me, is that …

That is, Weinberg introduces himself into the text with a reflexive pronoun, myself. A nominative  form I follows, in When Salam and I used ...; after it, an accusative me (and then another nominative I, in Salam and I found …). Those exhaust the 1sg pronouns in the text.

What’s notable about this is the myself, an “untriggered” reflexive, neither anaphoric (with an antecedent in its clause) nor emphatic (doubling another NP, as in He himself did it). The usage literature is pretty much dead set against untriggered myself, which means that this literature doesn’t even consider what writers like Weinberg are doing with it.

Here’s MWDEU on untriggered myself (there’s a separate article on untriggered yourself and yourselves), summarizing critics of this myself from 1881 (Alfred Ayres) through 1988:

Two general statements can be made about what these critics say concerning myself: first, they do not like it, and second, they do not know why. An index to their uncertainty can be found in the list of descriptors that they have variously attached to the practice: snobbish, unstylish, self-indulgent, self-conscious, old-fashioned, timorous, colloquial, informal, formal, nonstandard, incorrect, mistaken, literary, and unacceptable in formal written English. (p. 647)

The complaints continue. From Bryan Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003), p, 535:

myself is best used either reflexively <I have decided to exclude myself from consideration> or intensively <I myself have seen that> <I’ve done that myself>. The word shouldn’t appear as a substitute for I or me <my wife and myself were delighted to see you>. Using it that way, as an “untriggered reflexive,” is thought somehow to be modest, as if the reference were less direct. Yet it’s no less direct, and the user may unconsciously cause the reader or listener to assume an intended jocularity, or that the user is somewhat doltish. [exx. follow on p. 536]

and even more recently in a Visual Thesaurus column “Vocab Lab: The Myself Generation” by Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner on 9/22/08, also citical of the usage.

But MWDEU continues with the observation that

The handful of commentators who have done real research have found the usage surprisingly widespread in literary sources.

and goes on to survey the syntactic contexts in which it occurs. These include direct objects and objects of prepositions, both simple and coordinate. (The Weinberg example has a coordinate prepositional object.) One tendency MWDEU sees for the prepositional objects is that myself is used especially

in contexts where the speaker or writer is referring to himself or herself …  as a subject [that is, topic] of the discourse, rather than as a participant in it.

In the Weinberg example, Weinberg introduces himself as a discourse topic via myself, and then, on the second mention of  the Salam and Weinberg paper, shifts to the ordinary accusative pronoun, me, since he’s now been established as topical in the discourse. (I’m not claiming he thought this analysis through; he just chose his pronouns according to what sounded right to him. Or his editor did.)

Extra #1. Another fairly well-established contributor to the choice of myself over me is formality of discourse. As Ben Zimmer says in “More Musings on ‘Myself’ ” (Visual Thesaurus 9/23/08, replying to Simon and Julia, here):

There’s no question, however, that myself sometimes gets used by those who think it sounds “more correct, more elevated than plain ol’ me,” to quote Simon and Julia. Arnold Zwicky on Language Log has noted that “people like me” appears more frequently than “people like myself,” but “people such as myself” appears more frequently than “people such as me.” He argues that this is because such as is a more “upscale” alternative to like, and so the fancier-sounding myself is a better match for it. There does seem to be a general sense out there that myself is a pronoun wearing its Sunday best.

This effect plays little role in the Weinberg piece, which is academic-formal (though spirited) throughout.

Extra #2. I’ve listed all the 1sg pronouns in the Weinberg text about, but there are also lots of 1pl pronouns. Many of these refer to theoretical physicists in general:

[par. 2] By the 1980s we had a good comprehensive theory of all observed elementary particles and the forces (other than gravitation) that they exert on one another.

[par. 4] The search for the Higgs particle has been a search for the answer to the question: What is this new stuff we need?

[par. 5] Somehow the electroweak symmetry, an exact property of the underlying equations of elementary particle physics, must be broken; if we are to account for mass, the electroweak symmetry must not apply directly to the particles and forces we actually observe.

(and more). There are also anaphoric uses of we/our, referring to Salam and Weinberg:

[par. 7] When Salam and I used this sort of symmetry-breaking in developing the modern “electroweak” theory of weak and electromagnetic forces, we assumed that the symmetry-breaking was due to fields of this scalar type, pervading all space.

[par. 8] Salam and I found we needed to put four scalar fields into our electroweak theory.

In this passage, which isn’t pedagogical in purpose, Weinberg doesn’t use inclusive 1pl pronouns, embracing the addressee(s) as well as the speaker — things like Now that we’ve solved this equation, we can see that …

In any case, writers move back and forth between different uses of 1pl pronouns, and readers usually cope with these shifts smoothly.


One Response to “From the reflexives files”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Probal Dasgupta on Facebook:

    Zwicky manages to present all this without once using the word ‘logophora’. I’m not sure if users of the term logophora and its derivatives actually have a useful characterization, i.e. I’m not sure if logophora is a useful concept. My take is that the jury is out on whether there are two distinct sets of determinants — pragmatic and syntactic — whose union (I mean their set-theoretic union) makes sense of the distribution of reflexives.

    My response:

    I didn’t mention logophoricity because I don’t think it’s relevant here, or in other cases of untriggered myself. In logophoric reflexives, there is an antecedent for the reflexive (in untriggered reflexives, there isn’t one), but it’s structurally too distant from the reflexive to count as an antecedent for it. And in logophoric pronouns in general, the pronoun appears in a complement of verbs of saying or thinking to refer to the person responsible for the words or thoughts (which is not the case in the Weinberg example or in most occurrences of untriggered myself). See further discussion in my 2006 Language Log piece “Reflexive alert”.

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