Sunday, April 8, 2012

Officespeak Dissected: On the Overuse of Myself

From the Journal of Contemporary Linguistic Study, Volume 21, Issue 2:

Because Officespeak as a dialect spoken by middle- and lower-level administrative workers and bearing its own unique vocabulary, idioms, and grammatical structure has only recently come under the close scrutiny of linguists, many of its idiosyncratic uses (or usages, as Officespeakers would say) have not yet been isolated for further study. This journal proposes to chronicle some of the emerging distinctions drawn between Officespeak and our own variety of Common English.

One of Officespeak’s most widespread traits is its use of the reflexive pronoun myself to increase the formality of a sentence. Consider the following Officespeak sentences alongside their common English equivalents:

Example #1:
Mr. Graham and myself are expecting you in the meeting room by 3:30. (Officespeak)
Mr. Graham and I are expecting you in the meeting room by 3:30. (Common)

Example #2:

He gave copies of the guest list to Donald and myself to proofread. (Officespeak)
He gave copies of the guest list to Donald and me to proofread. (Common)

Example #3:
Return this letter, signed and dated, directly to myself. (Officespeak)
Return this letter, signed and dated, directly to me. (Common)

Linguists theorize that Officespeak’s use of myself in place of I or me deviated from Standard English in one of two ways:

Theory 1: Base Uncertainty: As in the first two sentences, Officespeak’s myself often appears when the speaker is referring to both himself and another person. The speaker may have been unsure whether to use I (a subject pronoun) or me (an object pronoun) and thus risk appearing unprofessional by making the mistake. Myself, however, shrouds the sentence in a more formal tone whose grammatical structure is more difficult to decipher (one of the dialect’s main purposes), ensuring that the mistake will not be noticed. Over time, use of myself grew to include sentences in which the speaker refers only to one person, as in Example #3. (For a more thorough discussion of this transition, see Hartwick pp 17-293.)

Theory 2: The Fear of Unprofessionalism: In common English, small children are often criticized by teachers and pedantic parents for making the following error:

X Josh and me got really wet!
O Josh and I got really wet!

The top sentence is wrong because the italicized portion is a subject, not an object. However, using Josh and me is correct when it serves as the sentence’s object:

O Ryan splashed Josh and me with water!

If this is still confusing, try reading the sentences without Josh around to muck them up:

O I got really wet!
O Ryan splashed me with water!

However, through overcorrection, many children learn to shun using Josh and me in both cases, thus transposing the taboo onto both subject (correctly) and object (incorrectly). When attempting to form a sentence that would accurately use Josh and me (see Example sentence #2), the Officespeaker substitutes myself, fearing that any use of Josh and me would be viewed as improper.  Kincaid M. Fowler, the theory’s leading proponent, reasons that Officespeakers attempted to escape their childhood humiliations instead of correcting them, and widespread Officespeak use of myself then grew to include subjects (as in Example #1) and objects without a second noun (Example #3).

Altered use of other reflexive pronouns (yourself, themselves, etc.) has not yet been adequately documented among Officespeakers, though the linguistic community is currently awaiting a promising study of the speech patterns of manufacturing accountants in the 128 corridor of northeastern Massachusetts.