Posted by: Jack Henry | April 13, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Illeism

Good day, folks! This is on the long side, but I didnt want to edit the article. The article was written by Samantha Enslen, from Dragonfly Editorial. It was read on a podcast by Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty).

Recently, Grammar Girl listener Mark J. Yevchak wrote in with an interesting question. Hed been watching the HBO miniseries Generation Kill, about the first days of the war in Iraq, and he noticed that one of the characters, Lt. 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 its 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 third 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 Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christies 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, he responded using illeism: One thing I didnt 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 2017 study in the journal Nature showed that using illeism can actually be helpful. The study found that using your own name when youre speaking to yourself, rather than the pronoun I, can help you better control your feelings and behavior when youre 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, youre more likely to do it than if you use the word I.

Weird, huh?

Heres an example. If youve ever watched Serena Williams play tennis, youve probably heard her shout come on! Shes talking to herself, but she uses a second-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. Shes talking to herselfbut 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.

Id suggest nearly all of us could try this, bringing illeism to bear in our day-to-day lives. For example:

  • Instead of saying Im totally going to fail this math test, say Youre going to study like a champ, and youre going to ace this math test.
  • Instead of saying Theres no way I can run a mile, say Youre 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 youll get it done.

Dont Let Illeism Become Hulk Speak

One cautionyou 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"Hulk Speak. Thats when a speaker refers to him- or herself in the third person and strips out most of the prepositions and articles.

Heres 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 youre 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 youre using a literary device known as illeism, and that its derived from the Latin word ille, meaning "he or that man. That should keep them quiet.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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