In last week’s discussion of lie and lay, I mentioned the difference between these two sentences:

1. I can’t wait to lie in my own bed.
2. I can’t wait to lay my body down in my own bed. 

In the second sentence, you use the transitive verb lay because there is a direct object, my body. 

In a reply to that letter, Habit member Matthew Cyr brought up that old bedtime prayer that begins,

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.

There is enough interesting grammar in those two lines to keep us busy for a while. For instance, I often see that second line written as ” pray the Lord my soul to keep,” as if this were a third-person statement that could be rephrased something like, “I pray that the Lord will keep my soul.” When you realize that the third word of the line is Thee, not the, you see that this is second-person, and Lord is a noun of direct address.

By the way, when Shakespeare says something like “I prithee, gentle friend,” that’s essentially the same construction as “I pray Thee, Lord.” “I prithee” is just a contraction of “I pray thee” (which is to say, “I ask you”).

But I digress. I bring up the bedtime prayer-poem because of that first line, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” As you know already, that verb is lay rather than lie because it takes the direct object me. But what about that direct object me? Matthew Cyr noted that this is an archaism. In contemporary English, we would use the reflexive pronoun myself—”I lay myself down”—not “I lay me down.”

So this line, which originated in the eighteenth century, is definitely archaic today. I suspect, however, it was already archaic when it was written. In Old English (Anglo Saxon), “I lay me down” would have been correct. But if I’m not mistaken, by the eighteenth century, reflexive pronouns were in wide use. Sometimes popular verse is archaic not because it’s old, but because popular versifiers have always had a thing for archaisms. (When Clement Clarke Moore wrote “Twas the night before Christmas” in the 1820s, I don’t think his neighbors in New York were saying “twas” for “it was” or “ere” for “before.”)

What, exactly, is a reflexive pronoun? In English, they are the -self/-selves pronouns (myself, yourself, himself/herself/itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves). A reflexive pronoun is used in the object position when the subject of a clause is also an object in the same clause (whether a direct object, an indirect object, or the object of a preposition), as in these sentences:

  • I hurt myself. (direct object)
  • Do yourself a favor. (indirect object)
  • Consuela is full of herself. (object of preposition)

Two Ways to Get It Wrong
One common way to get this grammar wrong is to use the “regular” objective case personal pronoun where the reflexive pronoun should go, as in “I’m going to get me a taco.”

The grammar anomaly in “I’m going to get me a taco” is similar to the grammar anomaly in “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But whereas the latter sounds archaic and quaint, the former sounds Beverly Hillbillies.

Another common way to get this wrong is to use the reflexive pronoun not reflexively, but as a “regular” personal pronoun, as in “Stan and myself were the only people there.” I guess people do this as a kind of verbal inflation. By replacing the grammatically correct “I” with the grammatically incorrect “myself,” you add a syllable and five letters, which, to a certain kind of speaker, feels like added heft.

I don’t recommend introducing a grammar error for the sake of added heft. Use the reflexive pronoun only if it reflects back on the subject of the sentence or clause it appears in…unless, perhaps, you are Irish (see below).

Reflexive Pronouns as Intensives Another use of the reflexive pronoun is to intensify or emphasize the importance of a noun. You might say, for instance,

The Queen herself attended my yard sale. 

In Raising Arizona, Leonard Smalls was using the reflexive as an intensive when he told Nathan Arizona Sr., “Why, I myself fetched $30,000 on the black market.”

This is a perfectly legitimate use of the reflexive pronoun. Just remember that, as with any other use of the reflexive, the intensive requires that the antecedent appear in the same sentence.

Irish Usage
Finally, one especially charming use of the reflexive pronoun appears among the Irish, who can always be counted on for charming uses of the language. They sometimes use a reflexive pronoun as a subject, with no antecedent. To wit:

Himself arrived at the party an hour late.

I asked Habit Weekly reader Judith Millar, who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for some help on this one. She wrote, “There is a slight hint of poking fun at the person when we use himself or herself. But it is usually quite gentle, sometimes even affectionate. [As in, ‘this person is so much more important than I am.’ I suppose it’s a means of self-deprecation really too.]…I presume the usage stems from a time when wealthy and powerful [British!] landowners were referred to as ‘Himself’.”

1 Comment
  • Mary Elizabeth
    5:16 PM, 28 September 2020

    Exclusive and insightful!
    I am currently taking your Compass Classroom course on Grammar for Writers. I find it enjoyable and easy to understand.

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