Wood on Words: We often misuse reflexive pronouns

Barry Wood

Reflection is generally a good thing, but it can be overdone — like spending too much time staring at yourself in a mirror.

Similarly, reflexive pronouns, which play a distinctive role, can be overused — and are often misused.

Reflexive pronouns are those that end in “-self” or “-selves.” They are called for in sentences in which the subject (the actor) and the object (the acted upon) are the same.

For example, “In that case, you will only hurt yourself.” The subject is “you,” and the object is the reflexive “yourself,” which reflects back to “you.”

The object can be “direct” or “indirect.” In the above example, “yourself” is a direct object, the thing being hurt.

Now consider this song lyric: “I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter.” The “letter” is the direct object, the thing being written. In this case, the reflexive “myself” is an indirect object, the person to whom the letter is being written.

The “-self” pronouns also can be used as “intensives,” adding emphasis to a noun being referred to:

“Today I received a phone call from the president himself.” The pronoun “himself” is acting as an intensive rather than a reflexive — there’s no verb (or action) linking them.

That’s what the “-self” words can do. Most of the problems arise when people try to make them do things they shouldn’t do.

One of those things is to act as an object without a corresponding word to refer back to (such words are called “antecedents”).

For example: “The students could get a petition and give it to myself or their principal.”

What is the antecedent of “myself”? There isn’t one. The subject is “students,” which would call for the reflexive pronoun “themselves.” But they wouldn’t give the petition to themselves.

In that sentence, “myself” should have been the simple objective pronoun “me.”

It is possible for an antecedent to be implied rather than actually appearing in the sentence. For example, “Physician, heal yourself.” The implied subject is “you”: “Physician, you should heal yourself.”

But this is not the case in the “give it to myself” example.

The other thing a reflexive pronoun shouldn’t be asked to do is act as a subject. For example, “My brother and myself played video games for 20 hours today.”

“Myself” cannot be a subject. By definition, it needs a subject to refer back to.

And it’s not a simple object here, either. So it shouldn’t be “My brother and me.”

No, it should be “My brother and I.”

One more point: The acceptable reflexive pronouns are “myself,” “ourselves,” “yourself,”

“yourselves,” “himself,” “herself,” “itself,” “oneself” and “themselves.” Such inventions as “hisself” and “theirselves” are considered nonstandard.

The misuse of the reflexive pronouns is one of the most frequent complaints that come my way. For many people, it’s almost enough to cause a gag reflex.

Punctuation Station

Here are two more instances of endangered commas:

“The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world forever.”

“I was a resident of Berkeley, Calif., for about 14 months.”

There is a tendency to omit the commas after “2001” and “Calif.” But the most commonly accepted style in this country is to include them.

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