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Some reflections on reflexives

Myself and my wife have for some time been amazed at the appalling driving habits of the general population of Grantham.

When you read the above sentence, what goes through your mind? Do you think ‘What a perceptive comment, and what an elegant turn of phrase’ or does your internal grammar monitor shriek ‘Eek! Yet another misused reflexive pronoun!’?

As you’ve probably guessed, I belong firmly to the latter, objecting, camp. I sometimes wish that I could exhort my inner pedant to take a chill pill, but she’s far too diligent for that! A swift search on the Net shows that I’m not alone in grousing about this: from Mumsnet to the Chicago Tribune, those of us who care passionately about such things are venting their irritation. In spite of these concerns, however, reflexive pronoun misuse seems to be proliferating, perhaps as part of a wider confusion about subjective and objective pronouns that we’ve addressed in a previous blog. So, without further ado, here’s my attempt to stem this rising tide of ungrammaticality.

Me, myself, and I

First of all, some basics: if you’re not sure about how to use the different types of pronouns, there’s a clear general guide on this site which you might like to consult before we continue. Turning to reflexive pronouns, these have two roles:

  • They show that the action of the verb affects the person or thing performing the action. This is known as a reflexive function – in effect, the verb’s subject and object are the same (I fell over and hurt myself).
  • They can be used to emphasize the subject or object of a sentence (she made the cake herself).

Here’s a table showing the subjective and objective pronouns in English, with their reflexive equivalents:

Subjective Objective Reflexive
I me myself
you you yourself
he him himself
she her herself
it it itself
one one oneself
we us ourselves
you [plural] you [plural] yourselves
they them themselves

Let’s look at the reflexive role of these pronouns first. As you can see in the following examples, the words in bold (the subjects and objects) refer to the same person or thing, so you should use reflexive pronouns in the object position:

She saw herself as a superstar.
Are you two enjoying yourselves?
They portray themselves as angry outsiders.
Over and over again, one asks oneself that question.
The Government has so far refused to commit itself to introducing a public smoking ban.

The word reflexive is related to reflect, and it may help you to think of a reflexive pronoun as ‘reflecting’ the verb’s action to the person or thing that does the action, just like a mirror reflects an image towards the person or thing in front of it. Reflexive pronouns function as the object of a reflexive verb in a sentence or clause; they should not function as the subject of a verb. This is why the following examples are incorrect:

✗  The MDA and ourselves have taken the scale of the festival to a higher level.
[✓  We and the MDA have taken the scale of the festival to a higher level.]

✗  Whether yourself or the NYT like it or not it is the owner of the computer who states what is run on their own system.
[✓  Whether you or the NYT like it or not it is the owner of the computer who states what is run on their own system.]

There’s a further pitfall to watch out for: don’t use reflexive pronouns as the object of a verb when the meaning is not reflexive. In other words, if the meaning of the verb doesn’t refer back to the subject, then you should use an objective pronoun (such as him, me, or them):

✗  He came over to greet Linda and myself.
[✓  He came over to greet Linda and me.]

✗  If any readers would like to join our band of volunteers could they contact myself as detailed below.
[✓  If any readers would like to join our band of volunteers could they contact me as detailed below.]

If you unpick the grammar of the first example above, you can see that he is the subject of the verb greet; whom did he greet (or, what is the object)? The action of greet isn’t reflexive, because he greeted Linda and me (that is, two other people); he clearly didn’t greet himself.

As you might have spotted in most of the preceding ungrammatical examples, these errors are found especially when speakers or writers are referring to compound subjects joined by conjunctions such as and or or. A simple way to avoid such mistakes is to think of the subject or object as singular, omitting the extra people or things – the correct pronoun should leap out at you:

✗  He came over to greet Linda and myself.
✗  He came over to greet myself.
✓  He came over to greet me.

A brief detour into Irish English

My Irish readers are no doubt jumping up and down and waving at me by now! Although using a reflexive pronoun instead of a subjective or objective pronoun isn’t acceptable in most varieties of standard current English, the situation is different in Irish English, where such uses are regarded as grammatical. Here’s an example of a reflexive pronoun as part of a compound subject from the letters of the poet W. B. Yeats:

Miss Horniman, the architect & myself were inspecting the theatre. [Irish English] Miss Horniman. . . & I were inspecting the theatre. [British English]

and a reflexive used as the object of a preposition (to) from an Irish news website:

Claire didn’t win but it was no mean achievement to reach the final and for this we send our congratulations to herself and her family. [Irish English] congratulations to her and her family. [British English]

It’s interesting that the historical evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that this usage wasn’t considered ungrammatical in British English in the past, either (how times change!). Here’s a citation showing a reflexive pronoun in a subject position from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Myself have letters of the self-same tenor.

Emphatically OK!

As mentioned at the outset of this blog, reflexive pronouns have a second role: they can be used to emphasize a noun, proper noun, or pronoun where they are one and the same. This preceding noun or pronoun can be either the subject or the object within a sentence or clause (meaning that the emphatic pronoun functions as a subject or object too):

  • subject:
    I myself forgot about these issues and most people are too polite to mention them.
    Sam fixed the car himself.
    The Bhutanese themselves call their country Druk-Yul or the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’.
  • object:
    No approach has yet been made to Thatcher herself over the plans.
    The responsibility for renting out school facilities will be transferred direct to the schools themselves.

A reflection of confusion or social aspirations?

Now we’re all clear about the correct uses of reflexives in standard current English, let’s ponder why many people are getting them wrong. When it comes to using myself instead of the subjective pronoun I, this could be because people think myself sounds less direct (and therefore more polite). There are also those who believe that myself sounds more prestigious or educated than the blunter and monosyllabic I or me. An element of confusion also may come into play: if you’re wavering between a subjective or objective pronoun and are unsure which is correct, why not opt for a reflexive instead? It might not sound so bad to most people. . .

She sent the email to my manager and I [?]. . . me [?]. . . myself [?]

But of course, now that you’ve absorbed my explanation of reflexives, you’d never, ever use a reflexive pronoun in such a context, would you? Let’s hope not!

Oh, and by the way, I haven’t forgotten that there’s a whole separate debate that’s raging over the non-standard reflexive pronoun themself. I’m relishing the chance to explore that linguistic hot potato in a future blog.

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