Reflexive pronouns are words ending in -self or -selves that are used when the subject and the object of a sentence are the same (e.g., I believe in myself). They can act as either objects or indirect objects. The nine English reflexive pronouns are myself, yourself, himself, herself, oneself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves.
Grammatical terms might seem complicated and a bit arbitrary when you first hear them, but they really aren’t, once you get to know them. The term reflexive is a good example. Through Latin, reflexive is related to reflect; this is useful to remember because a reflexive pronoun reflects back upon a sentence’s subject.
Reflexive Pronouns Are Direct or Indirect Objects
A reflexive pronoun can be a direct object in a sentence when the subject and the direct object are one and the same.
Jack decided to reward himself with a dinner out.
In the first sentence, Mary is the object of reward. Jack, the subject, is the object of reward in the second sentence, so we use the pronoun himself.
Reflexive pronouns can also play the indirect object role in a sentence.
Cynthia pours a cup of tea for herself every morning.
It is worth noting that referring twice to the same noun as subject and object (rather than using a reflexive pronoun for the object) sounds just a bit creepy. “Jack decided to cook Jack a special supper,” for example, sounds unnerving to a native English speaker.
Common Errors with Reflexive Pronouns
The misuse of reflexive pronouns abounds in certain sectors. (We’re looking at you, Business Speak.) The most common mistake of all is the incorrect use of reflexive pronouns in compound subjects or compound objects in a sentence.
Here is an example of the former type of offense.
How do we know that myself does not belong as part of the compound subject (Andrew and the speaker) in this sentence? Remove Andrewfrom the equation to see if what remains functions correctly.
Clearly, myself does not work, but the subject pronoun I does.
The improper use of reflexive pronouns as objects is just as prevalent in today’s business world.
The subject of this sentence is you, and the indirect objects are Mr. Martin and the speaker. Taking Mr. Martin out of the sentence will reveal that myself will not work.
Rather, the sentence requires the object pronoun me.
Reflexive Pronouns as Intensive Pronouns
Intensive pronouns are reflexive pronouns that are used to emphasize the subject or antecedent in a sentence, often in the sense of “and not someone else.” You can tell when a word ending in -self or -selves is being used as an intensive pronoun because the sentence it is part of will not change in meaning significantly if you remove it.
I closed the store on Saturday myself. (I didn’t have an employee to do it.)
We ourselves were forced to pilot the boat to safety. (Perhaps the captain was indisposed.)
Reflexive Pronoun for the Singular They
Although you should probably avoid using the singular they until it is more widely accepted as good English, the Associated Press green-lit its use this year. One of the reasons for not using the singular they in place of the more traditional, albeit more complicated, he or she is that it yields a very awkward reflexive pronoun: themself. For the time being, it is best to avoid constructions using themself, even if it results in more words.
Now that you’ve learned more about reflexive pronouns, give yourself a pat on the back.