The Rampant Misuse of Reflexive Pronouns
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
The poor, overworked reflexive pronoun (and the intensive pronoun!) is being misused and abused across the English language landscape these days, and I, for one, have had enough of it myself.
Not sure what a reflexive pronoun is? Here’s the complete collection (and yes, they're also intensive pronouns):
First person: myself, ourselves
Second person: yourself, yourselves
Third person: himself, herself, itself, themselves
Here’s the rule for using a reflexive pronoun:
It must refer back to a specific noun that is in the sentence.
This noun is usually the subject, but not always.
(It’s probably best if you tattoo this rule in neon on the inside of your eyelids.)
Here are some examples of correct reflexive pronoun use:
I told myself not to get so angsty about reflexive pronoun misuse.
She imagined herself on a beach in the Caribbean.
He moved the file cabinet by himself.
In each of these examples, the reflexive pronoun refers back to a noun in the sentence (the subject in each case):
Myself >> I
Herself >> She
Himself >> He
(Heaven help you if you write or say “hisself.” Just don’t).
Here is an example in which the reflexive pronoun refers back to a noun in the sentence that isn’t the subject this time:
Mom told me not to go into the parking garage by myself.
“Myself” refers back to “me” here. Therefore, this is correct usage.
So what I am seeing online that is bugging me (and hearing far too often)? Usage similar to these atrocities:
Would you like to go to dinner with Joe and myself?
I told the boss Amy and myself would finish the project.
Tom and myself painted the shed last week.
None of these works because the reflexive pronoun is not referring to any noun in the sentence. Corrections:
Would you like to go to dinner with Joe and me?
I told the boss Amy and I would finish the project.
Tom and I painted the shed last week.
And, yes, the first one is “Joe and me,” and we will explain why in another post some other day. Maybe. That’s enough grammar for you today. You’re welcome.
You take care of yourself now.
Looking for some good grammar books? Here are two we like:
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (11th Edition) by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern
Why we like it: It’s concise but clear, complete, and authoritative. Jane Straus was an English teacher with the ability to explain the rules of English in a simple, effective manner. We like the quizzes, too! She passed away in 2011, and Lester Kaufman is her husband. He maintains her famous website, GrammarBook.com.
The McGraw-Hill Education Handbook of English Grammar & Usage (3rd Edition) by Mark Lester and Larry Beason
Why we like it: I’ll be honest here. We were required to purchase this particular book during our certification process for copyediting, so we’re attached to it. Like The Blue Book of Grammar, it’s complete and authoritative and provides a good basic overview of grammar and punctuation. It’s not Jane, and it doesn’t provide the helpful quizzes, but it’s good!
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