My recent article on the “singular they” prompted an insightful question from reader Mahin Pouryaghma.
Just to provide context: Dr. Pouryaghma is a licensed professional counselor whose practice emphasizes self-honesty. You can read her background here on the Psychology Today website.
“When I am talking to more than one person and am saying that we need to look at ourselves – in other words, each one of us individually to look at ourself – is it ourself or ourselves?
“When I put ourself the spell check puts a red light under the word. So what is correct?”
Mahin, this excellent question is like a live grammar grenade. I just scanned a few proper-English forums where professionals argue about such issues. This is one they really, really get worked up over.
I’ve just studied several long rants by grammar-professor types, slamming down verdicts to the effect that “ourself” is not a real word, and that it’s always wrong. It’s easy to see why they feel that way – but I think they’re mistaken.
In my view, it’s a question of emphasis. If you want to stress that there’s something we all must do, then “we must do it ourselves”. But if you want to stress that there’s something we each must do (individually), then “we must do it ourself”
This latter construction really is shorthand for: “This is something I must do for myself, and you must do for yourself, and each one of the he’s and she’s in our group must do for himself or herself.”
By emphasizing “ourself” instead of “ourselves”, you’re implying: “This is a lonely, solo struggle – but we should not feel alone, because everyone else is waging that same struggle.”
In your question, Mahin, you nail it when you say you are speaking about “each one of us individually” That’s what makes this a special case, justifying the “singular we” (comparable to the “singular they” we discussed previously).
That’s the way monarchs have spoken for centuries, using the so-called “royal we”. It’s also customary for writers and authors using the similar “editorial we”. Most of the top dictionaries, such as Oxford and Merriam-Webster, support “ourself” in this context.
There’s another, subtly different usage in which “we” and “ourself” refer to a collective entity speaking with one voice and as one individual.
For example, “We are America, and we reserve the right to choose for ourself our own national anthem.” “Ourselves” would hardly make sense here, because it breaks the intended image of “one nation, under God, indivisible”.
The same can apply to a corporation: “We are Google, and we decide for ourself what is good, and what is evil.”
Here I’m referring to Google’s self-imposed “Don’t be evil” rule, concerning which its chairman, Eric Schmidt, once said: “…when I showed up, I thought this was the stupidest rule ever, because there’s no book about evil except maybe, you know, the Bible or something.”
Chairman Schmidt has since embraced the slogan because, he said, it provides employees with an opening and an incentive to speak up about corporate behavior they find unethical.
But we are drifting afield, and we need to get back to our point. (Notice how we write “we” and “our” instead of “I” and “my”, since we want to deflect attention here from ourself and our culpability. Is that not another rationale for the singular we?)
This singular use of “we” and “ourself” seems precisely analogous to the singular “they” and “themself” which – as I wrote – have recently come to be considered acceptable.
The online Merriam-Webster dictionary says the first known use of “ourself” is found in the 14th century. This pronoun is “used to refer to the single-person subject when we is used instead of I (as by a sovereign)”. The example it cites is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “We will keep ourself till supper time alone.” (“Ourselves” clearly would make no sense in view of the word “alone”.)
One more thing, Mahin – about that annoying little red underline: Your spell-checker is wrong. “Ourself” is a dictionary word with recognized definition and usage. These checkers are only as good as the data fed into them, and they make lots of mistakes.
Until recently, my Gmail spell-checker didn’t like me using the word “online”. That, too, was always underlined in red; the darn thing wanted me to write “on-line”. Yet “online” has been a well-established word since, oh, the Mesozoic Era.
Whenever your spell-check flags something, do check it out. In this case, “ourself” checks out.
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)