Reflexive pronouns

What is a reflexive pronoun?

The most self-absorbed of the gang, a reflexive pronoun is normally used when the object is the same as the subject, i.e. when someone or something is on both ends of the verb in a sentence, both giving and receiving, as though at an ideal Christmas party.

He decided to award himself twenty points for his satisfying simile.

The reflexive pronoun will normally precede or follow the noun to which it refers, known as the antecedent. For example, He decided to award twenty points for his satisfying simile himself gives the sentence a subtly different sense, which will be discussed further below.

Each personal pronoun (I, you, she, he, it, they or we) has its own reflexive form, which in Standard English has accrued an additional -self or -selves suffix to drive the point home (myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, themselves or ourselves).

Non-standard versions in various dialects often do not bother with the –self suffix at all (I’m gonna get me some fried noodles) or prefer a regional variant (Save thasen the effort, lad).

The rise of they as a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun has presented the user of reflexive pronouns with a quandary: do you say they can handle it themselves or themself? The latter is not a new invention, having been used in English since the Middle Ages; at one time, it was the correct form but it is currently out of favour with grammarians. But cometh the hour, cometh the changes in linguistic rules to accommodate new ideas.

Non-reflexive use

The reflexive pronoun has also been sneaking its way into other inappropriate situations, in which the speaker has perhaps tried to sound highly professional but has misunderstood how the parts of speech work.

If you could return that to myself by Friday, that would be great is an often-heard example.

Intensive pronouns

If more emphasis is required, the same pronoun can be moved to a different position in the sentence to help make the point.

He thought it was about time he saw it himself lends emphasis to the act of seeing it, but if the pronoun is placed differently (He thought himself it was about time he saw it) the emphasis highlights the act of thinking.

If you are unsure about whether the pronoun is reflexive or intensive, you can check whether the sentence would make sense without the pronoun.

Examples of reflexive pronouns

Personal pronoun Reflexive pronoun Reflexive Intensive
I myself I cleaned myself I cleaned the car myself
we ourselves We arranged ourselves We paid it ourselves
one oneself One should always protect oneself One can always do it oneself