7th August 2017 by Alice Kirk
It seems to have become fashionable recently to use reflexive pronouns at every opportunity, even when they are not needed. It’s probably not very charitable to point the finger of blame for this scourge, but I have my suspicions. Please, let’s stop the spread of this menace before it’s too late.
Reflexive pronouns are most often used incorrectly in speech, but I’ve begun seeing them creep into written material too. To me, this is crossing a line, so I felt compelled to write this article to tell you all how not to make this grave error, and to remain good custodians of our beautiful language.
This article will give you an overview of what reflexive pronouns are, and explain why and when they should be used.
Before we can understand reflexive pronouns, we need to take a look at basic, personal pronouns and understand what they are.
Simple sentences comprise three components: a subject, then a verb, then an object. For example:
The cat ate the fish.
(Subject=cat; verb=ate; object=fish)
In this simple sentence, both the subject and the object are nouns:
The cat ate the fish.
However, the subject and object don’t have to be nouns, and can be replaced with personal pronouns. There are lots of pronouns, including I, me, mine, you, yours, his, hers, we, they, them. Replacing the subject or object with a personal pronoun means you don’t have to keep using proper nouns in your paragraphs, and makes the writing more interesting to read.
Consider the following two sentences, when firstly the subject, and secondly the object, has been replaced with a personal pronoun.
You ate the fish.
The cat ate me.
Personal pronouns are slightly different depending on whether they replace a subject or an object:
When replacing a subject, use I, you, he, she, and they.
When replacing an object, use me, you, him, her, and them.
If you are a native speaker, using the correct pronoun will be completely natural to you. To illustrate this, see the next example:
Him spoke to I.
This makes no sense because the wrong personal pronouns are being used. What you mean is
He spoke to me.
Reflexive pronouns are special forms of the personal pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself and themselves. Reflexive pronouns are always objects, never subjects, and are used when the subject and the object of a sentence are the same.
See these examples of reflexive sentences, in which the subject and object are underlined:
I tripped myself up.
They can look after themselves.
Hannah made herself some dinner.
Note that the subject of a reflexive sentence can be either a noun or a personal pronoun, but the object has to be a reflexive pronoun. Sentences that use a normal (i.e. non-reflexive) pronoun or repeat the noun again are nonsensical or peculiar, as are these examples:
I tripped me up.
They can look after them.
Hannah made Hannah some dinner.
As I said earlier, for some reason some native English speakers have taught themselves out of the instinctive, natural and correct use of reflexive pronouns, and have begun using them when they’re not needed. Usually this is limited to the reflexive pronoun ‘yourself’ or ‘yourselves’, but I have heard it used in other contexts.
A reflexive pronoun should only ever be used when the subject and object of a sentence are the same. When this is not the case – as in the following examples – a regular, garden-variety pronoun is sufficient and perfect:
Wrong: I set up a meeting with yourselves.
Right: I set up a meeting with you.
Wrong: Would you like to go for dinner with myself and Rosie?
Right: Would you like to go for dinner with me and Rosie?
To me, writing those sentences felt very wrong, and saying them would feel even wronger. They’re just as jarring for your listeners as the previous sentence, so save everyone the heartache – least of all me – and use bog-standard pronouns where bog-standard pronouns are due.