Pronoun Review #1: Reflexive Pronouns

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The English reflexive pronouns are:

Singular: myself, yourself, himself/herself/itself

Plural: ourselves, yourselves, themselves

They are called “reflexive” because they reflect or restate another noun or pronoun that has already been stated. (In the case of an imperative sentence, the pronoun You is understood: “[You] Watch yourself on the ice!”)

Reflexive pronouns are used as direct and indirect objects when the object is the same as the subject of the verb:

I hurt myself when I fell. (direct object of hurt; restates the subject I.)

You must tell yourself not to forget her birthday. (indirect object of “must tell”; restates the subject You.)

Tell yourself not to forget. (indirect object of “must tell”; restates the understood subject [You])

George cut himself with a paring knife. (direct object of cut; restates the subject George)

Note: Ordinarily, reflexive pronouns are not needed after verbs that describe things that people usually do for themselves, such as dress, shave, and wash. For example, it is not incorrect to say, “The hermit washes himself in the creek,” but it is sufficient to say, “The hermit washes in the creek.” With this type of verb, the reflexive pronoun is used for emphasis: “She’s only four years old, but she dresses herself.”

A reflexive pronoun can function as the object of a prepositions:

The dog barked at itself in the mirror. (object of the preposition at)

Although it would affect all of us, Charlie and Cho discussed the matter between themselves. (object of the preposition between)

Note: The preposition by followed by a reflexive pronoun shows that the doer or doers did something without additional help:

My mother hung the drapes by herself.

The children built a compost pile by themselves.

Finally, reflexive pronouns are used to emphasize a person or thing being referred to:

The king himself thanked the courageous peasant.

The hat itself was the clue.

A common error with reflexive pronouns is to use a reflexive pronoun in place of a personal pronoun:

Incorrect: Charlie and myself attended the conference last year.
Correct : Charlie and I attended the conference last year.

Reflexive pronouns are frequently used with the following verbs:

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10 thoughts on “Pronoun Review #1: Reflexive Pronouns”

  1. This is a very good article, Maeve, especially given that so many people do not know what a reflexive pronoun is or how to use one. Abuses are numerous on the Internet.
    Also, watch out for the false “words”: “theirself” and “theirselves”.

  2. Also, remember that many people do not know what the imperative mood is or what it is. I discovered this while teaching college students subjects like electronic communications and mathematics. They did not understand that “Do it this way right now” is in the imperative mood – a command.

  3. Reflexive pronouns are quite common in German. For example, “Ich wasche mir die Hande” translates literally as “I wash myself the hands”, but in real English it means “I am washing my hands.”

  4. The same kind of construction is used in German for the verb “rasieren”, which means “to shave”.

  5. Another way reflexive pronouns are tortured is in the pairing of a singular pronoun with a plural reflexive: “Someone might hurt themselves.” An upper-class character in a recent episode “The Paradise” (PBS) made a similar goof. My husband and I simultaneously groaned.
    As Dale said, the Internet is full of abuse. Scripted television is getting almost as bad.
    Thanks for this excellent post, Maeve.

  6. Thanks, Nancy. Singular & plural together = YIKES !
    Correct is : Someone might hurt himself- which is not sexist. A person of unknown sex is a “him”. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt knew this in public speaking – which she did a lot of as the President’s wife.

  7. I can’t stand it when, in the course of my work, I hear doctors dictating, “The patient was taken to the OR by myself…” It makes me cringe. First of all, it’s not true; the doctor himself/herself probably did not actually take the patient to the OR; that’s what they have orderlies for. Second of all, there are tons of people hanging around an operating room, and the surgeon probably has an assistant too, so s/he probably NEVER does anything by herself/himself. The passive voice is pervasive in the medical field, but this gets ridiculous. When the word is misused in this way, in my mind’s eye I see the title of the song, “Thank you falettin’ me be mice elf again.”

  8. From “Those were the days,” the theme song from All in the Family:
    “Everybody pulled his weight.”

    Oh, how far we have fallen!

  9. Thank you Precise Edit! You you have hit the nail on the head.
    Also, everyone brought his book to class.

    Heard correctly recently: “The crowd stood on its feet,” and NOT “their”.
    “Crowd” is a collective noun, and collective nouns are always singular.

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