Recently, Grammar Girl listener Mark J. Yevchak wrote in with an interesting question. He’d been watching the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” about the first days of the war in Iraq, and he noticed that one of the characters, opens in a new windowLt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, often uses his own name when speaking.
Here are a few examples:
- “The general has asked this battalion to be America’s shock troops, and Godfather can’t tell the general we don’t do windows.”
- “Godfather doesn’t like being told what to do by the enemy.”
- “Godfather needs an airfield.”
Mark wanted to know what it’s called when someone talks like this. And he wondered if he was alone in thinking it made the speaker sound self-righteous.
Mark, here are your answers.
Illeism Is the Habit of Referring to Yourself in the Third Person
This verbal tic is known as “illeism.” That’s the habit of referring to yourself in the opens in a new windowthird person.
It can make the speaker sound egotistical. Think of Dwayne Johnson as “The Rock” asking, “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?” He used illeism deliberately to exaggerate his self-importance.
Think also of the character opens in a new windowHercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Christie often portrayed the detective as referring to himself in the third person, as a way of depicting his self-grandeur. In one of her books, another character asks him about it:
- Dr. Lutz: Tell me, why do you insist on referring to yourself in the third person? It’s intensely irritating!
- Hercule Poirot: It helps Poirot to keep a distance from his genius.
In the real world, speakers sometimes also revert to illeism when they want to create some distance between themselves and their actions. For example, when basketball player LeBron James was criticized for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, opens in a new windowhe responded using illeism: “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision … I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James … what would make him happy.”
James was lampooned for speaking this way and accused of being narcissistic. He might have been, or he might have been trying to control his emotions in a positive way.
Illeism Can Be a Positive Form of Self-Talk
You see, a opens in a new window2017 study in the journal Nature showed that using illeism can actually be helpful. The study found that using your own name when you’re speaking to yourself, rather than the pronoun “I,” can help you better control your feelings and behavior when you’re under stress.
The scientists theorized that “third-person self-talk leads people to think about the self similar to how they think about others.” This “provides them with the psychological distance needed to facilitate self control.”
In other words, if you give yourself a command using the word “you” or your own name, you’re more likely to do it than if you use the word “I.”
Here’s an example. If you’ve ever watched Serena Williams play tennis, opens in a new windowyou’ve probably heard her shout “come on!” She’s talking to herself, but she uses a opens in a new windowsecond-person imperative command, with an implied subject: “(You) come on!” Williams tends to do this after difficult points or at critical moments in the match. She’s talking to herself—but at a slight distance, as if she were her own coach or cheerleader.
The scientists in the “Nature” study call this type of self-talk “a relatively effortless form of self-control.” I’d suggest nearly all of us could try this, bringing illeism to bear in our day-to-day lives. For example:
- Instead of saying “I’m totally going to fail this math test,” say “You’re going to study like a champ, and you’re going to ace this math test.”
- Instead of saying “There’s no way I can run a mile,” say “You’re tough. You can make it. Keep going.”
- Instead of saying “It will take me forever to wash these dishes,” say “Nate, just wash one dish at a time. Get started and you’ll get it done.”
Don’t Let Illeism Become “Hulk Speak”
One caution—you may want to say these encouragements in your head or whisper them quietly to yourself.
Otherwise, you could be accused of another variation of illeism—” opens in a new windowHulk Speak.” That’s when a speaker refers to him- or herself in the third person and strips out most of the prepositions and articles.
Here’s an example from the movie “Thor: Ragnarok.”
Hulk: Hulk always angry.
Thor: I know. We’re the same, you and I. Just a couple of hot-headed fools.
Hulk: Yeah, same. Hulk like fire, Thor like water.
Thor: Well, we’re kind of both like fire.
Hulk: But Hulk like real fire. Like … raging fire. Thor like smoldering fire.
So when you’re trying to finish that 5K, rather than shouting “You got this, Monica,” you might want to whisper. If people still look at you funny, just explain you’re using a literary device known as illeism, and that it’s derived from the Latin word “ille,” meaning “he” or “that man.” That should keep them quiet.
Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at opens in a new windowdragonflyeditorial.com or opens in a new window@DragonflyEdit.
opens in a new windowOxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Illeism (subscription required, accessed March 5, 2018).
Image courtesy of opens in a new windowShutterstock.