Reflexive pronouns

A reflexive pronoun is any pronoun ending in -self or -selves: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves.

They allow the writer or speaker to refer back to the subject later in the sentence. They therefore appear in sentences where two noun phrases refer to the same person(s) or thing(s):

James saw himself in the mirror

The reflexive pronoun is used because the subject and the object of the sentence refer to the same thing. You will find that some verbs need to appear with a reflexive pronoun:

Laura prides herself on her honesty

An intensive reflexive (or emphatic) pronoun is different. The sentence doesn’t need it to make sense:

I myself did it
She made the cake herself

The reflexive pronoun serves to emphasise the noun phrase. This is common and not at all controversial.

However, there are objections to using reflexive pronouns in the place of object and subject pronouns – for example, using myself in place of me or I. Me is the object pronoun, and I is the subject pronoun.

He contacted myself
My sister and myself went to the beach

Sentences such as those above tend to occur when people are trying to be polite or aren’t quite sure which pronoun to use. The first example is standard as follows:

He contacted me

You will probably find that perfectly natural. The subject and object are not the same, and the verb requires an object to act on. Many people find sentences like the second example harder to deal with. If you aren’t sure which pronoun to use, remove the additional subject:

Myself went to the beach

You will probably find that sounds unnatural. The sentence needs a subject pronoun:

I went to the beach

The original sentence would be considered standard as follows:

My sister and I went to the beach

You will read differing opinions on how strict you need to be about using reflexive pronouns when the subject and object are not the same. Fowler’s has a good summary of uses that can be considered acceptable – including when the reflexive pronoun is part of a compound subject or object and when it is the object of a preposition.

I tend to think you should only use a reflexive pronoun where you need one or where it makes a point.

Thank you to Woebegone but Hopeful for suggesting this post.


7 thoughts on “Reflexive pronouns

  1. Thank you! At last a clear explanation….Now if someone will tell the Microsoft Word programmers.
    Anyway, thank you for taking the time.
    Best wishes


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