My students often ask me what the difference is between “doing something oneself” and “doing something by oneself”. If you’re wondering the same thing, I hope the two examples below will shed light on the difference. In both cases, the emphasis is on doing something alone, but with a slight difference in usage.
1) Doing something oneself = taking credit for what you do
Normally, the most common way of taking credit for something you’ve done or to identify yourself as the doer of an action is by saying, “I did this” or “I’m the one who did this”.
The abbreviated Latin inscription on the Pantheon in Rome reads, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT”, which means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this”, not someone else. What’s funny here is that most of the building that we now see is really the reconstruction made by the Emperor Hadrian about a hundred years later, after a fire consumed most of the original building. There was no need to tear down what was still standing after the fire, and by leaving the original inscription there, Hadrian could also show respect towards Agrippa’s work and honour his memory. (You can read more about the Pantheon and emperors Agrippa and Hadrian on Wikipedia.)
So if it’s more common to say, “I did this” or “I’m the one who did this”, when would it be useful to say, “I did it myself“?
Saying “I did it myself” can be really useful when the emphasis placed on you is associated with the hope or expectation of obtaining a better result than if you let someone else do the same work.
Example one: The hot water tap is still dripping. No one has come to fix it, even after your roommate asked the landlord to fix it.
You tell your roommate, “This time I’ll talk to him myself.” It’s like saying to your roommate, “This time, I will be the one who will talk to him, not you. It excludes the other and is often associated with the hope or expectation of obtaining a better result.
Another example: The soup your roommate makes isn’t usually very tasty. This time, you’ll make it yourself. Even if you consult several recipe books, you’re the one who will make the soup, not your roommate.
Of course, you could always get a more reliable roommate who is also a good cook or you could teach your roommate to be more reliable or to make better soup, but then you wouldn’t have as many opportunities to take credit for doing things yourself 🙂
As you can see in the table below, the form “myself” will vary to reflect the different persons in the singular and plural:
himself / herself / itself
In French, this expression corresponds to « faire quelque chose soi-même ». In the landlord example, you would say : « Cette fois, je lui parlerai moi-même ». As in English, this would be equivalent to the emphatic « C’est moi qui lui parlerai ».
The form « moi-même » will vary to reflect the different persons in the singular and plural, as shown in the table below:
toi-même (fam.) / vous-même (formal)
lui-même / elle-même
eux-mêmes / elles-mêmes
2) Doing something by oneself = without anyone’s help
This expression is much easier to understand than the one above because it simply means doing something without anyone else’s help. Yes, it’s OK to consult books and videos first:) Basically you’re doing something without anybody looking over your shoulder to correct you.
Example one: I have now learned how to fix a dripping tap.The next time a tap is dripping, I can fix it by myself. This means I can do it without anyone’s help because I know how to do it and I, too, can do a good job.
Example two: Today you learned the secret to making delicious soup. You can now make delicious soup by yourself. This means you will now be able to do this without anyone’s help.
In French the way to express this is to say « tout seul ». This means “all alone”, but in this context it is used to mean “without anyone’s help”.
Please note that « tout seul » is used to refer to one male individual, « toute seule » for one female individual, « toutes seules » for two or more female individuals (and no male) and « tous seuls » for two or more individuals that include at least one male.
3) To be by oneself
“Being by oneself” means being alone. “Being all by oneself” means being alone, but often implies feeling lonely or abandoned. Eric Carmen‘s song, “All by Myself” is a perfect illustration of this expression. You can hear more songs by this very talented musician on YouTube and check out his website here.
Think about situations at work, at home or while travelling when you had to do things yourself and/or by yourself? Discuss why that was and what you did about it. What did you learn from each experience? What would you do differently this time?
I hope you enjoyed my post. If you would like to practise discussing these expressions, you may wish to sign up for our conversation classes here.
Cheers, and ’til next time:)
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