Reflexive pronouns are common in our day-to-day language. You have been using them for years but you likely didn’t know what they were called. I have rarely used them myself. Oh, wait! I just did!
What Is a Reflexive Pronoun?
Simply put, a reflexive pronoun is used as an object when the subject of a sentence and its object are the same person or thing. These reflexive pronouns always end in -self or -selves.
I can just hear you thinking, “Wait. What?”
Don’t worry, we’ll get there. Think of it this way. Think of the subject of a sentence looking into a mirror. The object or the indirect object reflect the image of the subject. One way to remember it is to think “reflective” when you say “reflexive.”
Still clear as mud?
OK, let’s do some examples. They always tend to clear things up when the view is a little hazy. Take this sentence for example:
- John likes to shave John.
Sounds weird, right? That is because we are using the same word, “John” as both the subject and the object of the sentence. In normal language, we replace the object (the “John” at the end) with a personal pronoun.
- John likes to shave him.
Wait – that’s still not right. Not unless John is a barber and is shaving some other guy we don’t know about. This is where we have to use the reflexive version of the pronoun “him” by adding -self – and making it “himself.”
- John likes to shave himself.
Now that’s more like it. You see how John and himself are both the same person? Therefore, we can say the reflexive pronoun himself reflects back on the subject which is John. Another way to think about it would be to just remember that reflexive pronouns are generally used when a person or persons are performing an action on themselves.
Wine and Dine with the Big Nine (Plus One!)
Ok, maybe I went a little overboard with the name of this section, but it’s catchy, right? It will also help you remember that there are only nine – count them – nine reflexive pronouns.
Note: We’ve added a tenth pronoun here, “themself,” which is recognized by Merriam Webster as a singular, gender-neutral reflexive pronoun.
Who Goes with What?
It is very important to match the reflexive pronoun with the subject correctly. A big mistake that writers make is when they use the wrong reflexive pronoun to reflect the subject. Here are a few examples:
Jerry went to the movies by myself.
They tried to fix the car ourselves.
The bug tried to save himself.
Now, if you’re in the middle of a novel and speed reading through it or just perusing a magazine article, you might skim right over these sentences without them striking you as odd. However, when you are trying to write professionally, the correct pairing of the reflexive pronoun to the subject is essential if you want to look like you know what you’re doing. (And since you’re reading this blog, you certainly do!)
Here’s how these sentences should read:
Jerry went to the movies by himself.
They tried to fix the car themselves.
The bug tried to save itself.
Compare the corrected sentences with the incorrect examples and you will see what I mean. The reflexive pronouns use gender and are sometimes collective pronouns. What that means is you have to look at your subject, then match the reflexive pronoun to the subject’s gender or group. That can get a little confusing, so I’ve made a little guide for you.
Guide to Matching Reflexive Pronouns
- If the subject is I or My – use Myself
- If the subject is singular You – use Yourself
- If the subject is He (a male) – use Himself
- If the subject is She (a female) – use Herself
- If the subject is One – use Oneself (note that this is no longer commonly used)
- If the subject has no gender (It) – use Itself
- If the subject is a group in which you belong (We) – use Ourselves
- If the subject is a group in the plural You – use Yourselves
- If the subject is a group in which you don’t belong and is not the collective you (They) – use Themselves
Reflexive Pronouns as Objects
Reflexive pronouns can be used as direct objects or indirect objects.
A direct object, of course, is when the subject does something to themselves.
- Michael hurt himself on the job.
Jillian introduced herself to her new puppy.
And you can use a reflexive pronoun as an indirect object as well.
- Karen poured another glass of wine for herself to help chase away the blues.
The crowd cheered their team and congratulated themselves for attending the game.
Reflexive Pronouns and Prepositions
You should also use a reflexive pronoun after the preposition “by” when you are trying to show that someone is doing something alone.
- The goat made it out of the pen by itself.
The children made Sunday morning breakfast all by themselves.
Or you can even use the reflexive pronoun when showing someone doing something alone without the use of the preposition “by.” In these cases, you could remove the reflexive preposition altogether. For example, Jack himself guided the plane to safety could easily be Jack guided the plane to safety.
Reflexive Pronoun Exceptions
However, there are exceptions to the wholesale use of reflexive pronouns.
Don’t use reflexive pronouns when the verb is something someone does every day.
- She dries herself with a towel after every shower.
John dressed himself for the meeting.
In cases like this where the verb describes something that is a common occurrence, you simply don’t need the reflexive pronoun.
She dries with a towel after every shower.
John dressed for the meeting.
However, you should use the reflexive pronoun if you need it for emphasis.
John dressed himself for the meeting even though he only had one arm.
Clearly, John is doing something exceptional and the use of the reflexive pronoun helps to bring out that fact.
Don’t use reflexive pronouns after prepositions of place.
- Mary placed the mixing bowl beside herself.
- Mary placed the mixing bowl beside her.
Don’t use reflexive pronouns after “with.”
In this case, we are referring to the preposition with when it means “accompanied by.”
- Jordan took some jelly beans with herself to the show.
- Jordan took some jelly beans with her to the show.
Common Errors with Reflexive Pronouns
There are lots of common errors in the use of reflexive pronouns in both personal and business writing – and even in speech. Here are a couple of the heavy hitters.
Using a reflexive pronoun in the subject of the sentence
Usually, this happens when a writer uses the reflexive pronoun as part of a compound subject.
Todd and myself went fishing the other day.
To the ear, this sentence may sound correct. However, you need to test it out to get to the truth of the matter. A simple test is to remove the noun or pronoun that is not the reflexive pronoun.
Myself went fishing the other day.
Gadzooks! That’s obviously not right. What we need here is to just use a personal pronoun instead of the reflexive pronoun.
I went fishing the other day.
Whew! That’s better. Now we can add the proper noun “Todd” back into the mix.
- Todd and I went fishing the other day.
And now we have a sentence that is correctly written!
Using a reflexive pronoun as an object
Again, this usually happens when a writer uses the reflexive pronoun as part of a compound direct or indirect object.
The staff should report their mileage to Dr. Stern or myself.
Sure, it sounds good. But let’s put it through our test.
The staff should report their mileage to myself.
Yeah. That’s clearly not right. So let’s replace it with another personal pronoun.
The staff should report their mileage to me.
There ya go! Now we can plug the doctor back in.
The staff should report their mileage to Dr. Stern or me.
So now you know how to wield an effective reflexive pronoun. As a useful addition to this blog, I would suggest taking a look at our article on the three cases of pronouns (and of course, our Professional Writing lessons!).