Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 84: The Reflexives Are the First to Go.

Today we're discussing pronouns. It's worth a quick refresher: the simplest definition of a pronoun is a "word that stands in place of a noun phrase." For example, in the sentence:
Meryl bought a Beatles lunch box online.

The proper noun "Meryl" could be replaced with:
She bought a Beatles lunch box.

Unfortunately, that's where the simplicity ends. Learning about pronouns can be a bit like studying Russian literature: everybody's related, and they all go by a bunch of different names. First, there are at least six main types of pronouns: personal, impersonal, possessive, relative, interrogative and reflexive pronouns. And they're all sort of related.

The second reason pronouns can be difficult to discuss is that they can go by many different names. The kind of pronoun we're concerned with today is the reflexive pronoun which is also known as the compound personal pronoun a.k.a, the intensive pronoun.

For purposes of clarity, we'll refer to these pronouns only as reflexive pronouns going forward. But it's helpful to know their many aliases.

According to the Gregg Reference Manual, reflexive pronouns are any pronouns ending in -self or -selves. Myself, yourself, himself, ourselves, themselves, and so on. And there are two instances when using them is appropriate. The first is to "direct the action expressed by the verb back to the subject" as in the sentence:
Kyle drove himself to the hospital.

Here, the reflexive pronoun describes an action that Kyle did to himself. Without it, the sentence would take on a different meaning:
Kyle drove to the hospital.

Is he visiting a sick friend, or did his wife just have a baby? Adding the reflexive pronoun 'himself' makes it clear that Kyle needed medical attention and made his own way to the emergency room. On the other hand, repeating the proper noun instead of replacing it with a reflexive pronoun makes the sentence clearer...
Kyle drove Kyle to the hospital.

...but pretty awkward. The second appropriate use of the reflexive pronoun is to intensify a noun or pronoun already expressed. For example:
I myself was impressed.

The sentence has exactly the same meaning without the reflexive pronoun:
I was impressed.

But the pronoun intensifies the sentence and seeks to differentiate the speaker from others who may have a different opinion.

A common misuse of the reflexive pronoun is to put it in place of a personal pronoun like "me" or "I." In the sentence...
That gift is from Gloria and myself.

...the reflexive pronoun "myself" is used incorrectly. The problem is that the reflexive pronoun demands the presence of a matching subject and object. Put another way, in this sentence, there is no "I" to accompany "myself." Many speakers and writers insert a reflexive pronoun believing that doing so gives them a more refined sound. But it's incorrect; the sentence should read:
That gift is from Gloria and me.

There is, however, a colloquial use of reflexive forms that may not be grammatically orthodox, but definitely it's worth discussing. Brian Ó Broin teaches in the English department at William Paterson University in New Jersey, and he's also a correspondent with Raidió na Gaeltachta, the Irish language service of Ireland's public broadcaster, RTÉ. Ó Broin explains that in Irish English, the two normally reflexive pronouns himself and herself can be used nominatively—that is, they can be used to indicate the subject of a sentence or even with the verb to be. "So you can say things like 'It's herself' or 'Is himself in?'" Ó Broin says.

Ó Broin clarifies that himself and herself can often be used to refer to somebody of importance, or at least somebody of importance to both the speaker and the listener in the conversation, and that there's a clear understanding between the speaker and listener who is being spoken about. "For example, my sister is in hospital right now about to give birth to a baby," Ó Broin says. "So if I were to call her husband up and say, 'How's herself?' it would be absolutely understood that I'm not speaking about Michelle Obama or my mother. The person in question is my sister."

Ó Broin is quite certain this usage came out of Irish Gaelic. He says that Gaelic does not have a reflexive equivalent to English, but that when Irish people assemble a sentence that requires some sort of stress or an intensifier on the subject, they will use the Irish word, féin which means self. "So the Irish sentence, Sé féin atá ann, meaning 'It's him—that one,' becomes translated into Hiberno-English as 'It's himself,'" Ó Broin says. "So it's almost certain that Irish Gaelic is the origin of this phrase, 'It's himself.'"

Normally, we at Grammar Grater like to provide helpful mnemonic devices that aid in remembering specific linguistic rules. Unfortunately, pronouns—being the sticky wickets that they are—just take memorization and practice. And when in doubt, keep a style guide handy.

Grammar: A Student's Guide by James R. Hurford, The American Heritage Book of English Usage, and The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin.

Music from this episode: "The Reflex" by Duran Duran and "Dancing with Myself" by Billy Idol.

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