A nuance of the meaning . .
November 10, 2022 6:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm studying English. 'Please imagine yourself.' and 'Please imagine to yourself.' Could you explain the difference between the two?
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you provide an example sentence of the second one? The first one means that you should imagine yourself in situation that the speaker will now describe. "Please imagine yourself on a beach. What are you wearing?" would mean I am supposed to picture myself on a beach and then describe what my typical beachwear might be.

"Please imagine to yourself" is not a phrase I can recall ever encountering.
posted by timdiggerm at 6:31 AM on November 10, 2022 [15 favorites]

Without further context, I'd say the first involves imagining *yourself* in a particular situation ("imagine yourself being eaten by wolves") whereas the second can be any situation ("imagine to yourself that the President was eaten by wolves" - but the situation does not have to involve people).
posted by altolinguistic at 6:32 AM on November 10, 2022 [11 favorites]

in the first case, “yourself” is the object of the verb. it’s the thing you are being asked to imagine. in the second case it’s part of a propositional phrase and is incomplete. you could say something like “please imagine to yourself winning the lottery”. it just means that the imagining should take place within yourself. it’s kind of weird because to whom else would you imagine something?
posted by dis_integration at 6:32 AM on November 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Agree with both of the above, and especially that “imagine to yourself” sounds a little stilted. I could see it working, but I think most people would just say “imagine”. To use the above example, “imagine that the president was eaten by wolves” sounds more natural to me.
posted by sillysally at 6:33 AM on November 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Please imagine yourself" as a part of a bigger sentence, like "please imagine yourself wearing a hat", would mean "imagine if you were wearing a hat." That is, you're imagining about yourself. You could imagine yourself rich, you could imagine yourself the King, you could imagine yourself eating an orange. All basically instructions to think about yourself.

"Please imagine to yourself" would work in a sentence like "Please imagine to yourself what this dog is thinking." You could imagine about anything "to yourself"- it's like "talking to yourself" or "thinking to yourself", you're privately imagining something, but it could be about anything. It's as dis_integration says, it's a bit redundant, but to me it comes with the expectation that you don't need to share, it's a private little visualization that you're supposed to be doing.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:34 AM on November 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

This would definitely depend on the context - "please imagine yourself" could mean "create a mental picture of yourself", whereas "please imagine to yourself" would likely mean "spend time on your own imagining something [other than yourself]".

If both are meant to mean "spend time on your own imagining something", which they both could in English, they do functionally mean the same thing; the "to" isn't really doing much work in the second option, though it does follow the convention English uses for other verbs that you might do to yourself, i.e. where you're the audience for the action of the verb, rather than just the person the verb is happening to (the difference between "sing to yourself" and "wash yourself" - no "to" in the latter because you're not the audience for the washing, just the recipient of it). "Think to yourself [about...]" is one type of this phrasing that I hear more often, but that intent could also be conveyed as "spend some time thinking on your own [about...]".

Overall I'd expect "imagine yourself" to be an instruction to think about the person you are, but perhaps in an unfamiliar setting - "imagine yourself on vacation" or "imagine yourself as the CEO of a company", where the goal is to have you think about how you'd be in another situation. "imagine to yourself" strikes me as much more likely to be a situation in which you're being asked to spend time on your own thinking about something that may or may not exist, but which is less likely to be specifically about you as a person - "imagine to yourself a picture of a cat", for instance.

And, for what it's worth, I agree with timdiggerm that "please imagine to yourself" isn't a sentence structure that a native speaker would be hugely likely to use.

If you have more context about particular sentences, I'd be happy to clarify further. On preview, what altolinguistic said, just much less succinctly.
posted by terretu at 6:35 AM on November 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

the "to yourself" construction applies to something that could also be directed at someone else. For example, you can talk to yourself (or to another person), sing to yourself (or an audience), etc.

There is an idiomatic phrase in English, "I thought to myself," that essentially means, "I said to myself in my own head." For whatever reason (English is weird), this does not apply to verbs like "imagine," "feel," "consider."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:36 AM on November 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

The first one would usually be the beginning of some longer description, say, "Please imagine yourself taking a walk." It would be an instruction to imagine that you are doing whatever the described thing is.

I can't really imagine saying "please imagine to yourself [whatever]." There are similar things you could say with other verbs! People might say, for example, "please read to yourself" and that would mean basically "please do it quietly, in your own mind, so that no one else hears you". The opposite of "please read out loud." That doesn't quite make sense with the verb "imagine" because you're always imagining to yourself - there's no way you could imagine out loud.
posted by Stacey at 6:36 AM on November 10, 2022

"Imagine to yourself..." would be followed by something else, the thing you are being asked to imagine.

1 = In your mind's eye, get an image/thought of yourself.
2 = In your mind's eye, get an image/thought of [the next thing in the sentence] eg. "Imagine to yourself that you live in snow-capped castle"

2 is kind of odd though, and not really used much. On preview, as others have said - think to yourself would be more common.
posted by penguin pie at 6:37 AM on November 10, 2022

Professional writer here. I've never seen or heard anyone say "imagine to yourself" before your post.

However my expertise only applies to "official" english in USA and the UK, plus some regional dialects in parts of NE USA, parts of South-East Asia and parts of South Asia. It's possible that in your regional english dialect it's standard usage, and you'd need to specify that so that people familiar with your regional usage can respond. As an english learner, it can be helpful to keep in mind that your regional dialect is not "wrong" just because it doesn't conform exactly to whatever your textbook says - though for the purposes of your tests and exams, you likely do need to sound like your textbook.
posted by MiraK at 7:11 AM on November 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

"Imagine to yourself" would be the beginning of an instruction aimed at small children who would otherwise be tempted to verbalize their imaginings.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:30 AM on November 10, 2022 [17 favorites]

Also a professional writer here, and the daughter of an English professor.

"Imagine yourself" means mentally picture yourself in a given situation.

"Imagine to yourself" means imagine something privately in your own mind, without necessarily discussing or sharing it with others. Whatever it is you are imagining in this case may or may not include you in any way. As others mentioned, this is not a commonly used phrase in English, but, I can certainly think of contexts where it would make sense. For example, in an art classroom a teacher might say, "Everyone imagine to yourself what a perfect park might look like, and then draw a picture of it, but don't show your classmates yet. At the end of the class we will share our pictures." The "to yourself" in that context would just be there to emphasize that everyone should be doing this imagination exercise alone and not discussing it as a group.
posted by BlueJae at 7:34 AM on November 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm surprised by all the people saying they've never heard "imagine to yourself" - it seems pretty unremarkable to me.

Basically, "imagine" is a verb that takes a direct object. You need to imagine something:

- Imagine that!
- Imagine a hungry dinosaur.
- Imagine a world where no one is hungry
- Imagine a duck wearing a purple hat
- Imagine that the world is going to end tomorrow

All the things marked in italics are the things you're being asked to imagine - the direct objects.

The direct objects of "imagine" can be of a few different kinds. In the first example above, the direct object is really simple - just a pronoun. In the second example, it's just a simple noun with an adjective. In the next two examples, it's a noun ("a world", "a duck") with a descriptive phrase after it. In the last example, it's a whole new phrase starting with "that".

With "Imagine yourself", "yourself" is the direct object - what you're being asked to imagine. Usually you'd see this with a descriptive phrase afterwords, like in the 3rd and 4th examples:

Imagine yourself sitting on a beach.

It's basically the same structure as "imagine a duck wearing a hat". "Yourself sitting on a beach" is the thing you're being asked to imagine.

Now, you might sometimes have a parenthetical phrase between the verb (imagine) and the direct object:

Imagine, if you please, that you just won the lottery.
Imagine - even if it seems bizarre - a world where we've all turned into flamingos.

"Imagine to yourself" is a command/request ("imagine") followed by a parenthetical ("to yourself"). It's not a complete thought yet - we're still waiting to hear the direct object (what we need to imagine).

"Imagine to yourself that you've just won the lottery" - okay, I'll imagine that, internally, to myself.

"Am I bothering you? Just imagine to yourself that I'm not here."
posted by trig at 7:44 AM on November 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Can confirm restless_nomad's statement. I have given that instruction to a group of small children in a classroom setting without the "to yourself" and ended up with a cacophony of imaginings! I'd find it stranger for a group of adults but still within the realm of normal.
posted by BlueBear at 7:49 AM on November 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Besides the kids scenario, the usage of "to yourself" with "imagine" that I'm familiar is usually for emphasis, for sentence rhythm, or to create some closeness between speaker and listener.

Here's are Google search results for "imagine to yourself" in general, and specifically on Project Gutenberg for less contemporary/more literary results.
posted by trig at 8:02 AM on November 10, 2022

With some exceptions like those discussed above, couldn’t “imagine to yourself” be shortened to just “imagine”?
posted by lumpy at 8:34 AM on November 10, 2022

Yes, it's just a parenthetical. Same as in "I thought to myself that..." Brevity is a virtue but not the only one.
posted by trig at 8:40 AM on November 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I suspect what's pinging you as odd as a language learner inferring patterns in the new language is this:

Ordinarily, in English, you show the direct object (a letter) through sentence order:

Send a letter.

You show the indirect object (him) either solely through sentence order:

Send him a letter.

or through adding a preposition, which allows you to move the indirect object after the direct object:

Send a letter to him.

So often Send him a letter and Send a letter to him are functionally equivalent, if perhaps differing in nuance.

But in the case of Imagine to yourself..., to yourself is an adverbial phrase, not a direct or indirect object, characterizing how the imagining is being done, not who/what is being imagined or who/what is the recipient or beneficiary of the imagining. Whereas imagine yourself is just using yourself as a direct object (picture your own self in x situation).

This construction is most common, as noted by others, with verbs of thinking, imagining, etc., where just by semantics it's more likely that it's adverbial rather than objective (it's more likely that when you say Think to yourself you mean, e.g., "think silently/privately" than "beam thoughts in your own direction"). Or, if it helps,

Imagine to yourself a world without Heather

would violate English word order if to yourself was the indirect object: you don't generally say Send to him a letter, right? So "to yourself" must have some other function; in this case, adverbial.
posted by praemunire at 8:56 AM on November 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

“Imagine yourself”: You are imagining what it would be like in that situation. “Imagine yourself in a futuristic world” might mean answering questions like “How did you get there?” and “What changes would surprise you?”

“Imagine to yourself”: You do not need to include yourself in what you are imagining. You also are being asked not to share. “Imagine to yourself a futuristic world” means I might still imagine flying cars, but I am not required to imagine myself riding in one.

“Imagine a futuristic world” says the same thing, mostly, but “Imagine to yourself” makes it clear that the listener should stay quiet about what they see (“to yourself” generally means not sharing, in such phrases as “keep your hands to yourself” or “keep your germs to yourself”). I’ve definitely said “imagine to yourself” to my kid, who likes to share all of his thoughts even if I am already speaking. :)
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:38 AM on November 10, 2022

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