It may come as a surprise to readers of my blog but I am something of a grammar nerd. This is why I read odd things like grammar books and style guides. Although my personal grammar hobby is accusative interrogative pronouns, I’m not too interested in explaining to normal people who speak normally why their prepositional phrase would have been more traditionally "correct" with an archaic stuffy sounding "whom" as its object. Really, I’m pretty cool about normal people speaking normally. Of course if you tell me the project was delayed because you "literally hit a roadblock", I may ask if anyone was injured. But that will be our little joke that you may not get. I just like to be as right as I can be in my own communication and help others who ask for help. Beyond that, if I can understand you, no need for pedantry.

On the topic of grammar trolls who troll grammar trolls, I just finished reading an English usage book called The Sense of Style by Harvard professor Steven Pinker. I’m a big fan of his writing and I really enjoyed this book. I believe this book will be for the 21st century what The Elements of Style was to the 20th. I highly recommend it to anyone who needs to write cogent readable prose and also to academics.

One nagging question on my mind never got addressed in the book so I decided to write to the author.

Professor Pinker,

I am a huge fan. I have read several of your books. The Better Angels of our Nature is a wonderful and brilliantly written book.

When I read it I remember thinking, wow, this guy sure writes extremely well. Imagine my delight when I discovered you had written a style guide. I had just read Strunk & White and a few other rule-based guides, but yours was a real breath of fresh air. Discussing the concepts of tree based communications really helps a lot; I would speculate that grammar taught with trees in mind would be much easier to learn for kids and foreign speakers alike.

As I read the end of the book where you go through specific issues (is it ok to use that word?) I was hoping you’d address one of the most common grammar quirks of modern times, the "fancy" form of the reflexive pronoun. I call it "fancy" because when people say "Bob told Tom and myself," they must be imagining themselves posher than those less creative people who reserve reflexive pronouns for their traditional jobs (such as the first occurrence of the word "themselves" in this sentence).

On one hand, it’s text book wrong with a neon arrow pointing it out.

On the other hand, it is frighteningly common. Can we say that this form of pronoun use has entered the language in a first class way?

How does that usage panel feel? Does it degrade the utility of the language or is it benign? Since your whole tone seemed refreshingly balanced and thoughtful, I would love to hear your opinion about it.

Perhaps it would make a nice addition to the next edition.

Once again, I offer my compliments for your superb books and writing.


Chris Edwards

P.S. Any grammatical errors contained in this letter are intentionally included to provide you with a source of examples for future writings about grammar.

He turned out to be a very good sport; I was quite delighted that he actually wrote me back!

Dear Chris,

Many thanks!

I don’t know of any analyses of non-reflexive myself, but I’ve suggested to the AHD editors that we consider asking the Usage Panel about it. My hunch is that it might be used for contrast, in contexts in which a speaker might reasonably have expected someone other than the speaker to be mentioned as having a given role, or to express self-consciousness, as if to say "I realize that I’m referring to myself here, rather than taking my participation for granted."

Thanks again for the kind words.


Steve Pinker

If it’s good enough for Steven Pinker, it’s good enough for myself!