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What we’re looking at this week is reflexive pronouns. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’re familiar with the part of speech. Reflexive pronouns are all about self. Whenever you take a pronoun such as him, it, my, or your and put self on the end and make it himself, itself, myself, or yourself, you’ve made a reflexive pronoun. We don’t use them as much as regular pronouns, but they’re frequently misused, even by experienced writers. There’s a lot of latitude when you’re writing casually, but we’re looking at it from a formal POV. Remember, in these Words to the Wise columns, everything is based on writing in Standard Written English (SWE).
Two Uses of Reflexive Pronouns
As reflectors. When these words are used right, they have two very specific uses. One of the uses is the reason they’re called reflexive. It’s because they reflect on the action of a noun or another pronoun. So, why aren’t they called reflective? Don’t know, but I’m going to use reflect in this article. In the sentence John painted himself into a corner, himself reflects on John, who was painted into a corner. So, John is the noun that himself is reflecting on. Likewise, in She gave herself a glowing report, herself refers to she. That’s why you shouldn’t write, Himself got painted into a corner. We wouldn’t know who himself is. The rule, then, is that when you use a reflexive pronoun, there has to be a noun or non -reflexive pronoun in the sentence that the reflexive pronoun refers to. In other words, we have to know who the sentence is about before we can use a reflexive pronoun. Here’s a couple more examples. In, You can hurt yourself doing that, you and yourself are the same person. In, Those people had no right to set themselves up on my property, people and themselves refer to the same things.
One reason reflexive pronouns are used incorrectly is because people use them when they’re trying to seem more “literary.” They’ll write The team and myself worked hard for this win. That doesn’t work because the rule is that you don’t use a reflexive pronoun in place of a regular pronoun. You only use it to refer to it. A reflexive pronoun can’t be the subject. It can only be an object. You wouldn’t write Myself worked hard, so you don’t write The team and myself. . . You’d write The team and I. . . Same with For myself, skating was a big mistake. There’s no other word for myself to reflect on, so you use me.
“But wait,” I can almost hear you say, “Look at To do it ourselves wasn’t an option is good usage even though there’s no other noun or pronoun for ourselves to reflect on. And you can’t substitute us for ourselves.” Good point. Here’s the reason. In this example, there’s an implied phrase that comes before the sentence. Even though it’s not written, the whole sense of the sentences is As for us , to do it ourselves wasn’t an option. And this phase has the necessary pronoun for ourselves to reflect on.
As Intensifiers. The other reason a reflexive pronoun is used is as an intensifier. You could write Sally tried to do all the work alone, but there’s more intensity if you write Sally tried to do all the work herself. It adds emphasis to the idea that she didn’t want any help. We don’t need you. We can do it ourselves, shows more determination than just We can do it. BUT, the same rule applies. You use a reflexive pronoun only where there’s another noun or pronoun that’s the same person or thing as the reflexive pronoun.
Exceptions. “But wait,” you say again, “What about a sentence such as For himself alone, the result was a victory”? Well, this isn’t “technically” correct, but it can be used in literature or non-formal writing to add emphasis. It isn’t that you can’t break the rule. You just have to know what the rule is that you’re breaking.
In SWE, the correct reflexive pronoun forms are myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, and themselves.
There are no such pronoun forms as hisself, theirself, theirselves, ourself, or themself.
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