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.


Split infinitives

An infinitive is the form of a verb made by adding to to its stem (e.g. to go or to do).

It is often argued that there should never be anything between the to and the stem. In Latin, the infinitive is a single word.  This has led to the belief that the infinitive in English should be treated as a single unified concept, and that it is bad grammar to separate the two parts.

It is not bad grammar to split an infinitive; there is no grammatical reason not to. It is sometimes impossible to convey your meaning without splitting the infinitive. Sentences quite often read better when the infinitive has been split.

The most famous example of a split infinitive is probably to boldly go (from Star Trek). Would to go boldly or boldly to go have the same emphasis? No. Are they more natural? No.

As with ending a sentence with a preposition, there are circumstances where it would be more appropriate to avoid splitting the infinitive. It might be, for instance, jarring to split it.

You may also find that some publications would rather that you didn’t split infinitives lest you upset people by doing so. For that reason, The Economist’s Style Guide sadly declares that the ban on split infinitives is ‘pointless’ but that you should observe it anyway.

I’m not sure how healthy it is to obey a ‘rule’ that isn’t a rule just to keep your readers from confronting that it isn’t a rule.

If you want to read people agree with me, here are some books you should take a look at:

  • For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, David Marsh.
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (editor).*
  • Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation (Second Edition), John Seely.
  • Oxford Guide to Plain English (Fourth Edition), Martin Cutts.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (Sixteenth Edition).
  • The Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser and Stephen Curtis.

* Fowler’s suggests that you should avoid splitting infinitives but also states that it is acceptable and often necessary.

(To make things even more complicated, I recommend Trask’s The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar for an explanation of why you aren’t actually splitting an infinitive at all.)

Thank you to Lucy aka Blondeusk for suggesting this post.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (ed.)

This is my latest book recommendation. I consult this book regularly and it rarely lets me down. Respected and authoritative, it is a book with a sensible and measured approach to the English language.

The 7,500 entries are displayed in an A–Z fashion (like a dictionary, as per its name) with clear explanations and examples. It covers grammar, syntax, spelling, word choices and meanings, punctuation, and differences in English usage around the world. Fowler’s is my favourite source for identifying myths and ‘rules’ that are unnecessary and that damage good writing.

I referred to it in my previous post on ending a sentence with a preposition, and I have directed clients to it when discussing preferred forms of words. I even flick through it occasionally just to see what interesting entries I stumble across.

My hardback copy of the latest edition has 928 pages – you probably won’t want to carry it around with you! But it is an excellent publication to add to your collection. And (to my chagrin) it seems to be a lot cheaper to buy now than it was when I bought it.

Ending a sentence with a preposition

Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely fine. Do it. You can cite the following sources to anyone who says you shouldn’t:*

  • For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, David Marsh
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (editor)
  • Oxford A–Z of Grammar & Punctuation, John Seely
  • Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts
  • Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser & Stephen Curtis
  • The Chicago Manual of Style

Sometimes sentences ending in prepositions should be rewritten because they lack impact or read badly, but they are not ‘wrong’. It is only in the most formal of contexts that placing a preposition before its object is a must. In fact, in some situations it is only appropriate for the preposition to come at the end of a clause or sentence (see Fowler’s for more on this).

Don’t ruin your writing trying to obey this ‘rule’. It is not a thing.

* Martin Cutts calls these people ‘fossils’. I couldn’t possibly comment …

Should I use ‘a’ or ‘an’?

Most English speakers will use the correct indefinite article (or determiner, if you prefer) without even thinking about it.

If you find yourself worrying, this is how to know which is correct:

A precedes words that begin with consonant sounds (letters that are not a, e, i, o or u).

An precedes words that begin with the vowel sounds a, e, i and o.

The letter u is different depending on the sound. If the beginning of the word sounds like ‘you’ (or ‘yoo’), use a. If the word begins with ‘uh’, use an.

The letter h may also vary depending on sound. If the word starts with a hard h sound, use a. If the word starts with a silent letter h, use an.

It is the sound that determines which indefinite article you should choose: a eucalyptus tree; a one-off; an understandable choice; an honourable man. Let the sound guide you when applying to single letters or groups of letters: an FAQ; an SAS unit; an MA; a B road; a TUC member; a UFO.