Reflexive Pronouns in English

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:Reflexive pronouns are used much less often in English than in other languages. This explanation provides an overview of reflexive pronoun use in English with explanations and examples.

English Reflexive Pronouns

Here is an overview of reflexive pronouns matched with subject pronouns. 

  • I - myself
  • you - yourself
  • he - himself
  • she - herself
  • it - itself
  • we - ourselves
  • you - yourselves
  • they - themselves

The reflexive pronoun "oneself" is used whens speaking in general about a situation.

An alternate form is to use the reflexive pronoun "yourself" to speak about people in general:

One can hurt oneself on those nails over there, so be careful!
You can enjoy yourself by simply taking the time to relax.  

Reflexive Pronoun Use Explained

Use reflexive pronouns when the subject and the object are the same with reflexive verbs: 

I enjoyed myself when I was in Canada.
She hurt herself in the garden. 

Here is a list of some of the most common reflexive verbs in English:

  • to enjoy oneself - I enjoyed myself last summer.
  • to hurt oneself - She hurt herself playing baseball last week.
  • to kill oneself -  Killing oneself is considered a sin in many cultures.
  • to market oneself as something - He's trying to market himself as a consultant.
  • to convince oneself - Peter tried to convince himself to move on with his life.
  • to deny oneself - It's a bad idea to deny oneself the occasional scoop of ice-cream. 
  • to encourage oneself - We encourage ourselves to learn something new every week.
  • to pay oneself - Sharon pays herself $5,000 a month.
  • to make oneself something

Reflexive Verbs that Change Meaning

Some verbs change their meaning slightly when they are used with reflexive pronouns. Here is a list of some of the most common verbs with changes in meaning:

  • to amuse oneself = to have fun alone
  • to apply oneself  = to try hard
  • to content oneself = to be happy with a limited amount of something
  • to behave oneself = to act properly
  • to find oneself = to learn about and understand yourself
  • to help oneself  = to not ask for help from others
  • to see oneself as something/someone = to think about yourself in a specific manner

She amused herself by playing cards on the train. 
They helped themselves to the food on the table. 
I'll behave myself at the party. I promise! 

As an Object of a Preposition Referring to Subject

Reflexive verbs are also used as the object of a preposition in order to refer back to the subject:

Tom bought a motorcycle for himself.
They purchased a round trip ticket to New York for themselves.
We made everything in this room by ourselves.
Jackie took a weekend holiday to be by herself.

To Emphasize Something

Reflexive pronouns are also used to emphasize something when someone insists on doing something on their own rather than relying on someone else:

No, I want to finish it myself! = I don't want anyone helping me.
She insists on talking to the doctor herself. = She didn't want anyone else talking to the doctor.
Frank tends to eat everything himself.

 = He doesn't let the other dogs get any food.

As the Agent of an Action

Reflexive pronouns are also used following the prepositional phrase "all by" to express the subject did something on their own:

He drove to school all by himself. 
My friend learned 
to invest in the stock market all by herself.
I chose my clothing all by myself. 

Problem Areas

Many languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, German, and Russian often use verb forms which employ reflexive pronouns. Here are some examples:

  • alzarsi: Italian / get up
  • cambiarsi: Italian / change clothes
  • sich anziehen: German / get dressed
  • sich erholen: German / get better
  • se baigner: French / to bathe, swim
  • se doucher: French / to shower

In English, reflexive verbs are much less common. Sometimes students make the mistake of translating directly from their native language and adding a reflexive pronoun when not necessary.

Incorrect:

I get myself up, shower myself and have breakfast before I leave for work. 
She becomes herself angry when she doesn't get her way. 

Correct:

I get up, shower and have breakfast before I leave for work.
She becomes angry when she doesn't get her way.