Writing Tip: April 29, 2002
Let's begin by identifying the reflexive pronouns.
Can you identify problems with reflexive pronouns in the following sentences?
1. When students fail, they rarely blame themself.
2. My boss gave the tickets to Henry and myself.
3. Audrey and myself are going to the shareholders' meeting this afternoon.
4. Hilda herself was responsible for the fire that burned down her house.
5. Gayle asked if Paul and herself could leave work early that afternoon.
6. Mannie's mother left him at home by hisself while she shopped for groceries.
Only sentence 4 is correct.
Sentences 1 and 6 contain the most egregious errors. Although some people will say or write hisself, themself, theirselves, and theirself, these words are not standard English forms and are never appropriate choices. Sentence 1 should have used themselves, and sentence 6 should have used himself.
Reflexive pronouns have two functions:
(1) They act as intensifiers, following a noun or pronoun as would any appositive:
--I myself wrote that check.
--I wrote that check myself.
--She assured us that she herself would lock the building.
--She assured us that she would lock the building herself.
(2) They are more commonly used, however, as objects of verbs, verbals (e.g., infinitives), or prepositions when the receiver of the action or the object of the preposition is the same as the subject of the verb in the clause:
--I gave myself a treat.
--Before the meeting, she allowed herself time to get to the office and park her car.
--In every town we visited, she bought lavish gifts for her children and herself.
--We voted to give ourselves a raise this year.
In each of these sentences, the reflexive pronoun "reflects back" to the subject of the sentence and is the object of an action verb, an infinitive, or a preposition.
In the first example, the pronoun I is the subject of the action verb gave, and the receiver of the action--myself--is the same person as I.
She is the subject in the second example, allowed is the action verb, and herself--which refers to the same person as the subject she--is the object of that verb.
In the third example, herself is one of the objects of the preposition for, and it is appropriate because it refers to the subject in that clause, she.
In the last example, ourselves is the object of the infinitive to give rather than the object of the verb voted. Nonetheless, it still meets the criteria of being the object of an action verb and of referring to the same person who is the subject of the verb in the clause.
Sentence 2 in the opening quiz is wrong, then, because the subject of the verb in the sentence, boss, is not the same person as the speaker/writer of the sentence. The correct pronoun in this sentence would be me, not I, because the preposition to requires an object, not a subject.
Sentences 3 and 5 essentially make the same mistake: both of them use a reflexive pronoun as the subject of a verb. Remember that reflexive pronouns can intensify a subject, but they can never serve as subjects themselves. Thus, sentence 3 should use I instead of myself, and sentence 5 should use she instead of herself.
Correct any reflexive pronoun errors in the following sentences:
1. My dog gives hisself a bath every morning.
2. The president gave additional responsibilities to her staff and to ourselves.
3. Two of my colleagues completed the project by theirselves.
4. On behalf of my husband and myself, I would like to thank you for your support.
5. I always ask for challenging projects, but my supervisor never gives them to myself.
1. My dog gives HIMSELF a bath every morning.
2. The president gave additional responsibilities to her staff and to US. [We cannot use the reflexive pronoun ourselves here because the subject of the clause is president, not we.]
3. Two of my colleagues completed the project by THEMSELVES.
4. CORRECT. [The second object of the preposition of is myself because it refers to the subject of the verb in the clause, I.]
5. I always ask for challenging projects, but my supervisor never gives them to ME. [Note that while the subject of the first clause is I, the subject of the clause in which the reflexive pronoun myself appears is supervisor. The reflexive pronoun must appear in the same clause as the subject it reflects.]
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