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 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 herself a cup of tea 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 primary 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 Andrew from 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
The Associated Press has green-lit the singular they, as have the Chicago Manual of Style and the American Heritage Dictionary, among others. In the past, writers were encouraged to use the more traditional, more complicated, he or she in place of they for indefinite singular pronouns. But the singular they has been used for exactly this purpose for hundreds of years. Not to mention, the singular they has been adopted as a personal gender pronoun among the nonbinary community.
You can still use the awkward him- or herself construction—but by no means do you need to.
Now that you’ve learned more about reflexive pronouns, give yourself a pat on the back.