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Reflexive Pronouns

Summary:

This section has information about how to use pronouns correctly.

Contributors:Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III
Last Edited: 2015-10-08 09:37:41

A reflexive pronoun is a specific type of pronoun that is used for the object of a verb when it refers to the same noun as the subject of that verb. In English, these are the pronouns that end with “­self” or “­selves”: e.g., “himself,” “myself,” “ourselves,” etc.

The following can be considered a rule with regards to reflexive pronouns:

If the object and the subject of a verb are the same, use a reflexive pronoun for the object. Otherwise, do not use one.

Proper Usage

An example of proper usage would be:

Jane shook herself awake.

The meaning of the sentence is fairly clear. Jane was drifting to sleep at a time when she shouldn’t be, possibly during class, so she made a sudden movement in order to stay awake. However, if we were to replace the reflexive pronoun with the standard accusative pronoun “her,” the meaning changes:

Jane shook her awake.

Most English speakers would read this sentence as meaning Jane was shaking someone else, which suggests a different situation entirely.

Improper Usage

A grammatical error that is somewhat common among developing writers is the use of reflexive pronouns when they are not needed, usually in an attempt to appear more formal. Though this does not necessarily impair meaning, it is considered incorrect. An example follows:

If you have questions, e­mail Bob or myself.

There is no need for a reflexive pronoun here, as the person doing the e­mailing (“you”) is not the same as the person being e­mailed. The correct version would be:

If you have questions, email Bob or me.

Note that the reflexive pronoun has been replaced with the first ­person accusative pronoun. The meaning is the same either way, but the first is recognized as incorrect and should be avoided. A good way to determine whether you need to use the reflexive pronoun is to apply the same trick that is usually used to check whether your pronouns should be nominative or accusative ­ break the sentence down. For instance:

If you have questions, e­mail myself.

Freeing the pronoun from the detritus of the rest of the verb’s object makes the problem much clearer. The phrase “e­mail myself” cannot be used in this context, because the only person who can “e­mail myself is “I.” Remember, we only need the reflexive if the subject and the object of the verb are both the same. In this case, the subject is second-person (“you”), and the object is first-person (“myself”), so they can’t be referring to the same individual.

Exception

Following the rule stated at the top of this article will steer you right the vast majority of the time. There is, however, one way in which the reflexive pronoun may be used that does not fit into that structure: It can be used to emphasize any noun or pronoun directly preceding it. A well­-known example follows:

And he—he himself—the Grinch carved the roast beast!

This sentence, from the popular children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss, shows the reflexive pronoun in its use as emphasis. We can tell this is how it is being used because, as you can see, the object and the subject of the verb are very definitely not the same. Thus the reflexive is being used for emphasis only; it is understood that this sentence:

The Grinch carved the roast beast!

is less emphatic than this sentence:

The Grinch himself carved the roast beast!

The usage above, with the reflexive pronoun included, implies that there is something unusual or notable about that particular individual being involved. In short, the reflexive pronoun, when used in this way instead of the “proper usage” as explained above, directs the sentence’s emphasis and therefore the reader’s focus towards the noun to which the pronoun refers, indicating that it is in some way worthy of extra attention. (The original text above is an example of this same principle being applied to excess.) 

Works Cited

Dr. Seuss. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. New York: Random House, 1957. Print.

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