Get Me One While You’re Up

A while back, Democratic presidential prospect Elizabeth Warren caused some raised eyebrows while hosting an online chat session. At one point she excused herself, saying “Hold on a second – I’m gonna get me a beer.”

Interestingly, it was her language more than her choice of beverage that caused the eyebrow-raising.

In formal speech we use the reflexive pronoun when we are referring to something we do for, by, or to ourselves (that is what a reflexive pronoun is – it reflects on the doer). I’m gonna get myself a beer.

It could be the way Ms. Warren really talks; after all she was raised in Oklahoma, and her folksy usage was probably a genuine attempt by her to sound closer to the grass roots, more approachable. In writing fictional dialogue we might use phrases like “I’m gonna get me…” to make the speaker sound less formal, more rural.

Well I got me a fine wife, I got me an ole fiddle,
When the sun’s comin’ up I got cakes on the griddle.

 Mind you, what sounded natural coming from a grateful country boy in Colorado could sound contrived coming from a Rutgers-educated, New England politician.

Another thing to note is that the phrase “I got me” isn't necessarily reflexive. It can just be a rhythmic way of  saying “I got.” Or many other verbs: “I caught me a fish.”

But it got me to thinking about all the ways we refer to ourselves, and how some people do exactly the opposite to make themselves sound less grass roots, more formal.

To Thine Own Self be True
One of the main bugbears in business writing is the ubiquitous but cringeworthily incorrect use of “myself.”

Wrong:

  • If you have any questions please contact myself or my assistant.

Just as wrong:

  • The committee met with George and myself.

Worst of all:

  • I will make sure to get a copy to George and yourself ASAP.

I believe some people speak or write this way because they think “myself” and “me” are interchangeable, and that if they use the one with twice as many syllables they will sound twice as important.

They won’t. People will actually think they are less important – and less literate. Misusing these reflexive pronouns is the grammatical equivalent of wearing rhinestone sunglasses to a coronation.

Here are three general instances in which you should use the reflexive pronoun:

  • When the subject and the object are the same: I’m gonna get myself a beer.
  • When you want to emphasize that the subject has acted on their own: I got the beer myself.
  • When you want to intensify the subject: I myself do not drink beer.

And of course you can always leave them out entirely:

  • I’m gonna get a beer
  • I got the beer
  • I do not drink beer

This Is Us
So is it wrong to say, “OK, I got me a beer now, so we’re all set to talk about my candidacy for President of the United States”?

It depends on your definition of “wrong.”

Because I am an editor by both trade and temperament, I know that usage is often driven by factors other than rules. There is always room for latitude in style. In all situations, the context, the environment, and your own relationship to the audience (congregation, BFF, or midwife) should provide the guidelines.

We can adopt unorthodox usages as a matter of rhythm or sound. Poetry is a good example of this.

Seventeenth-century devotional poet George Herbert wrote a lyrical poem that begins

I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree…

 
This is both lyrical and rhythmic (and four hundred years old, mind you).

On the other hand, don’t forget Walt Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself…

“Sing myself” is on the borderline of correctness, but it is rhythmically logical and forms one of the most positive affirmations ever written in our language. And consider: If Whitman had called the poem Song of Me, it might not have ended up on anyone’s Best Of… list.

The conclusion is that you can speak or write any way you want. Just be aware of your purpose and your audience. What do you want them to feel when they encounter your words?

If you are running for office or writing a serious essay, think about the negatives of straying out of your ambient style zone.

Be thoughtful. Consider the options. Then, like Madonna, express yourself.

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