Pronouns can cause writers problems, as we have seen in two previous posts on vague pronoun reference and on pronoun antecedent agreement. The pronouns we’ll be examining in this post are called reflexive pronouns. As with many of the words we’ve discussed in this space, these pronouns have varied histories and spellings, as well as acceptance by standard English resources.
Reflexive pronouns are compound words – the first word is personal pronoun plus the word -self or –selves.
Here is a chart of standard reflexive pronouns:
Reflexive pronouns have two main uses. One use is with verbs which show that the subject performs an action on itself: they patted themselves on the back.
As with pronoun antecedents, reflexive pronouns reflect back to someone or something else in the sentence: themselves relates back to they in the sentence above.
Standard usage rule is to use a reflexive pronoun as an object in a sentence when its antecedent is the subject of the sentence:
John cut himself.
I glanced at myself in the mirror.
Jack cooked an omelet for Barbara and himself.
I cooked breakfast for Kelly and myself. (Examples from Rhetorical Grammar)
As we saw with pronoun antecedent agreement, pronouns must match their antecedents in gender (masculine or feminine), person (first, second, third), and number (singular or plural).
Consider these examples from English Grammar by Mark S. LeTourneau (72). Assuming Jane is a female, only one of the following sentences is correct in antecedent agreement. (Reminder – an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence indicates an error or nonstandard usage.
Jane likes herself.
*Jane likes himself.
*Jane likes myself,
*Jane likes themselves.
There are distinct singular and plural forms for second person plural reflexives, yourself and yourselves. In a sentence with a reflexive which relates back to a you in the subject position, LeTourneau points out that the number of the subject you can be deduced: “For example, in You should congratulate yourself, you is singular, whereas in You should congratulate yourselves, it is plural” (72).
In Rhetorical Grammar, Martha Kolln discusses nonstandard uses of reflexive pronouns, in particular, ones that occurs with the first person pronoun myself, but not with the third person herself or himself. Kolln (241) attributes these to hypercorrection or emphasis.
For instance, we often hear the use of the reflexive pronoun where the standard rule calls for me, the straight objective case:
*Tony cooked dinner for Carmen and myself [me].
*The boss promised Pam and myself [me] a year-end bonus. In these sentences, there is no antecedent for myself.
Another common nonstandard usage occurs when speakers use the reflexive myself in place of the personal pronoun I as part of a compound subject:
*Ted and myself decided to go out and celebrate.
Because reflexive pronouns must have a subject antecedent in the same clause (or word group), they cannot be subjects themselves.
Kolln notes that this mistake does not happen with third person herself or himself because the personal pronoun and reflexive produce different meanings:
John cooked dinner for Jenny and himself (for John).
John cooked dinner for Jenny and him (for someone else).
When a reflexive pronoun is used to add emphasis to a noun, it is called the intensive reflexive pronoun. This is their second use. Kolln shows that the intensive can occur in different positions and that these produce a different rhythm pattern:
I myself prefer classical music. (In this pattern, the stress is on myself.)
I prefer classical music myself. (In this pattern, the stress is on classical.)
Myself, I prefer classical music. (In this pattern, the stress is on I.) (Kolln 241)
Themself, Theirself/Theirselves, Ourself, Hisself etc.
These nonstandard reflexive pronouns, like many words we have discussed in this blog space, have actually been in our language for a long time, and some, such as themself, have become more accepted, which is why I included it in the list above of reflexive pronouns. (*However, MSWord, invariably “corrects” themself to themselves. Themselves is the standard reflexive form corresponding to they and them: they can do it themselves.)
Uses of these words are recorded in different manuscripts as early as the 14th century. In the late 20th century onward, the use of themself instead of himself or herself became more accepted. It is used to refer to a person of unspecified gender, corresponding to the singular gender-neutral use of they, which we discussed in the post on pronoun antecedent agreement.
With personal pronouns, the singular they/their avoids sexist usage and also the awkwardness of overusing the phrase his or her when the sex is not specified: Each does a good job in their office. As referenced in this earlier blog post, Richard Norquist cites recent handbooks, like The Copyeditor’s Handbook (Amy Einsohn, U of California P, 2000) that recommend using the plural pronoun after an indefinite pronoun.
The reflexive pronoun themself functions in the same way as seen in these examples adapted from lexico.com:
The casual observer might easily think themself back in 1945.
This is the first step in helping someone to help themselves.
Ourself instead of ourselves also has a history of long use. Though now archaic, it once meant myself and was used to refer to the single-person subject when we is used instead of I, such as by a monarch; for instance, in this quote fragment from Shakespeare: “will keep ourself till supper time alone” (merriam-webster.com).
Lexico.com, though emphasizing its non-standard status, goes further in defining ourself as being used instead of ourselves “typically when we refers to people in general rather than a definite group of people:
We must choose which aspects of ourself to express to the world. (reflexive)
This is our affair—we deal with it ourself. (intensive or emphatic)
The words hisself, theirself, and theirselves have a more contested status, though they have a long and continued use since the 14th century. They are considered dialectal variations for himself/themselves and are rarely used in formal writing. However, they have a rich history and use in the British Isles and in the South and South Midland sections of the United States (South Carolina.edu). Contemporary uses can also be found in literature, especially in dialogue.
There is no agreement in how reflexive pronouns were formed, particularly nonstandard ones. For some, these nonstandard words are incorrect formations of “true” reflexive pronouns, they are “not legitimate words,” but “grammar errors” (languageandgrammar.com). We have devoted quite a number of posts on “errors,” as well as on confusing or “wrong” words. Ultimately, it is up to you as the author to decide which “standards” you will follow for your vision and your purposes, whether it be for dialogue and authentic speech in your writing or for in-house or publishing style guides for publication.