Reflexive Pronouns in English Grammar

Reflexive Pronouns in English Grammar

Reflexive Pronouns are used to show that the subject and object of a sentence are exactly the same person or thing or there is a direct connection between them.

Reflexive Pronouns in English Grammar

Reflexive Pronouns

Sometime you come across a situation in which the subject and object of a sentence are the same. Reflexive pronouns are used in such cases to show this relationship and make the sentence simpler.

Good to Know!

The term reflexive comes from the word 'reflect'; this is useful to remember because a reflexive pronoun reflects back upon a sentence’s subject.

Reflexive Pronouns

You can find a list of these pronouns in the table below.

Reflexive Pronoun Person Number
Myself First Singular
Yourself Second Singular
male Himself Third Singular
female Herself Third Singular
neutral Itself Third Singular
Ourselves First Plural
Yourselves Second Plural
Themselves Third Plural

Good to Know!

In most cases in the English language, the second person singular and plural pronouns look the same. But, in this case, the two are different: 'yourself' is the second person singular and 'yourselves' is the second person plural pronoun.

Let us look at some examples:

Whenever I fail , I tell myself that I need to get up and start over .

In the sentence you can indicate that ‘myself’ refers to a previously mentioned pronoun, which is ‘I’ here.

They were arguing amongst themselves .

Here ,‘themselves’ refers to ‘they’ ,that has been mentioned earlier, therefore is a reflexive pronoun.

Reflexive Pronouns Cannot Be Subjects

These pronouns cannot stand as the subject of the sentence. For example, in the sentence 'The mayor himself announced this', the reflexive pronoun ‘himself’ is not the subject of the verb. It is merely used for emphasis and can be removed from the sentence. It is therefore called an emphatic pronoun.

Necessity of Using a Reflexive Pronoun

It is possible to use an object pronoun to show if the subject and object of a sentence are the same, but it is only possible if the subject is first-person (or in some cases second person) singular. Take a look at this example:

I saw me in the mirror .

In this example, by using an objective pronoun we can make it clear that the subject 'I' and the object are the same person.

But in second and specially third person, using this structure my lead to ambiguity. Look at this example:

He saw him in the mirror .

In this example, it is impossible to distinguish if the subject ‘He’ and the object ‘him’ are the same person (he may have seen another man in the mirror). In this case it is necessary to use a reflexive pronoun to make it clear.

He saw himself in the mirror .

Here, by using a reflexive pronoun, it is shown that the subject and object of the sentence is definitely the same.

When to Use Reflexive Pronouns

We use reflexive pronouns in a number of ways. Here are some of the usages of these pronouns:

1. When Subject and Object Are the Same

Reflexive pronouns can be both a direct and indirect object. Sometimes, it happens that the subject and the object of a sentence are the same person; at times like this, we use a personal pronoun or a name as the subject, and use the agreeing personal pronoun as the object.

I hurt myself with the knife when I was making dinner .

As you can see, the subject and the object both refer to the same person.

When a reflexive pronoun is an indirect object, it demonstrates why or for whom the action is performed. For example:

I bought myself a new car .

This is exactly the same as 'I bought a new car for me'

Sam makes a cup of coffee for himself every morning .

Or we can also say Sam makes himself a cup of coffee.

2. When We Want to Emphasize the Subject or Antecedent in a Sentence

Intensive pronouns (also called emphatic pronouns) are used to show emphasis usually by indicating that the subject did the action alone and without help.
All reflexive pronouns can also be intensive pronouns; the difference is that if you delete an intensive pronoun from a sentence, the sentence would remain complete and meaningful. Therefore, intensive pronouns are not essential to the structure of the sentence.

I told my son that he has to do his homework himself .

Here, if you delete ‘himself’ from the sentence, the sentence would remain meaningful and structurally complete, so ‘himself’ is an intensive pronoun.

She hurt herself .

Here, if you delete ‘herself’ the sentence would become incomplete, so ‘herself’ is a reflexive pronoun here.

Intensive Pronoun Vs. Reflexive Pronoun

It is important to know that intensive pronouns do not take the position of an object in a sentence. They usually come before the verb or at the end of the sentence. Sometimes by changing the position you can change an intensive pronoun to a reflexive pronoun or vice versa. Look at this two sentences:

He himself bought a present .

In this example, ‘himself’ is placed before the verb and is an ‘intensive pronoun’.

He bought himself a present .

In this example, ‘himself’ is placed in the position of an indirect object and is a ‘reflexive pronoun’.

Intensive pronouns can be used with ‘by’ to emphasis on doing something alone. In this case it is not always necessary to use ‘by’, but it can make the meaning clearer and distinguish an intensive pronoun from a reflexive pronoun. Take a look at these examples:

Carl wanted to go to the party (by) himself .

Here, it is emphasized that he wanted to go to the party ' on his own'.

I want to finish the race (by) myself !

Remember, this sentence is exactly the same as I want to finish the race 'on my own'.

Object Pronoun or Reflexive Pronoun?

After the prepositions 'for' and 'by' we can use reflexive pronouns, but after prepositions of place we use object pronouns, not reflexives.

He had a suitcase beside him . (NOT himself)

As you know, 'Beside' is the preposition of place , so we must use an 'object pronoun'.

She had a few friends with her . (NOT herself)

In this example 'With' is a preposition which is not followed by a 'reflexive pronoun'.

3. When We Want to Be Polite

You can use reflexive pronouns to refer to someone politely. In this case, usually ‘yourself’ and ‘yourselves’ are used and other reflexive pronouns are rare.

I think an educated man like yourself would understand our policy quite well .

In this example, using ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’ make the sentence more polite.

We welcome gentlemen such as yourselves .

In the situations like this, instead of 'you', we can use 'yourselves' to be more polite.

4. When We Are Using a Reflexive Verb

Generally, if a verb’s object is a reflexive pronoun, that verb is called a reflexive verb. To be more specific, the subject and the direct object of reflexive verbs refer to the same person/thing. Look at the following example:

My daughter threw herself on the couch and started playing with her phone .

Here, ‘threw’ is a reflexive verb since the object and the subject refer to the same person.

Some verbs such as ‘perjure’ are always reflexive; meaning that they always need a reflexive pronoun as their object.

I couldn’t believe it when Richard told me that he had perjured himself .

As it is mentioned, 'perjure' is a reflexive verb ,so it is always followed by a reflexive pronoun.

Examples of Reflexive Verbs

There are also some verbs that if you use them with reflexive pronouns, their meanings change. Below you can find some of these verbs and their meanings. Notice that while using these verbs you can replace oneself with any reflexive pronoun:

Reflexive Verb Meaning
Amuse oneself Do something to pass the time
Apply oneself Work and try hard
Content oneself with Settle down for something less than one’s desire
Behave oneself Act appropriately
Find oneself Learn about and understand oneself
Help oneself (to) Serve food/drink for oneself

For these verbs the meaning of the verb without a reflexive object is very different from the meaning here. Let us look at some examples of these verbs:

The ski lodge was closed , so we had to content ourselves with a warm cup of coffee at home .

In this example, if we omit the reflexive object it does not mean to settle down anymore.

Please , help yourselves to snacks and drinks

As you must know, ' help' has a different meaning without the combination of reflexive object.

Carol said she needs some time to find herself again .

It is good to know that 'find' does not mean 'to understand' with out the reflexive object.

Impersonal Reflexive Pronoun

In addition to the reflexive pronouns mentioned earlier, there is one more personal pronoun: ‘oneself.’ ‘Oneself’ like ‘one’ does not refer to a specific person, and you can use it in two ways:

  • Like other reflexive pronouns, to refer to a previously mentioned noun/pronoun:

One must be careful not to put oneself in danger .

'Oneself' refers to previously mentioned 'one'. As you know. it is the same as you must be careful not to put yourself in danger.

  • As the object of the sentence when there is no clear subject:

It’s important to give oneself some time after an emotional shock .

In this statement, it is not clear who the subject is , so we can use 'oneself' as an object.

Reflexive Pronoun for the Singular 'They'

In the past, for indefinite singular pronouns, people used the more traditional, more complicated, he or she in place of they. But the singular 'they' has been used for exactly this purpose nowadays. So, when we do not want to mention the gender specific 'he' or 'she' in our sentence, we can use 'they' and 'themselves' instead. We can still use the him- or herself. They are all correct.

Every person needs to take responsibility for themselves now and again .

Themselves, herself , himself are all alternatives. In fact we use themselves in order not to mention the gender.

Every person needs to take responsibility for himself or herself now and again .

Every person needs to take responsibility for him- or herself now and again .

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