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Flex Your Grammar Muscles: An Introduction to Reflexive Pronouns

When we ask the question, what is a reflexive pronoun, we end up with an answer that is, quite fittingly, a bit reflexive itself. This part of speech is essentially used to refer back to a previous noun and, in some cases, to add emphasis. We’ll break this down further for you with this guide and reflexive and intensive pronouns worksheet.

A Time for Self-Reflection

It’s easier than it sounds to define reflexive pronoun. Nearly all pronouns, by their very definition, refer back to some antecedent—a word or phrase that is replaced by the pronoun in question. The reflexive category is simply more transparent about this relationship than some of the other types: these cannot stand alone and must be preceded or followed by the word to which they refer.

Let’s start with a list of reflexive pronoun examples:

myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves

As you might notice, each reflexive pronoun corresponds clearly to a subject pronoun: I, you, she, and so on. Because these nouns, by nature, must be closely attached to another noun, it makes sense that there is this clear correlation between the groups.

The Tell-Tale Heart (of the Grammar)

How do we identify reflexive pronouns when we see them in the middle of writing? There is one dead giveaway that indicates the presence of one of these particular words: the presence of the suffix –self or its plural form –selves.

In many ways, this suffix is crucial to understanding what is a reflexive pronoun and how this particular grammatical concept works. In most sentences that utilize this structure, the subject and object refer to the same person, place, thing, or idea. So if we look at a sentence with the common structure subject + verb + object, the subject does something to or acts upon the object. But if we’re using reflexives, the subject and the object are one and the same—so the noun in question acts upon itself somehow.

  • William taught himself to cook.

  • We backed ourselves into a corner.

It is action done upon the self, rather than upon some external being. In the first sentence, William is the person doing the teaching (the verb) and the recipient of that teaching is also William; therefore, we use this grammatical structure to convey the idea that William was not taught to cook by someone else, nor did he teach anyone else to cook.

In the second sentence, the speakers have caused their own entrapment in the corner. The reflexive grammar here is used to indicate that something is the fault of the speakers and no one else; it emphasizes their own culpability.

Grammar, Intensify!

Reflexive pronouns have another common usage: they can function as intensifiers to add emphasis to a sentence and highlight a particular aspect of that thought. For this reason, we group reflexive and intensive pronouns together. To ensure that you’re using words and other grammar concepts correctly, our grammar checker can go over your writing for mistakes.

Let’s look at a few examples of intensifiers.

  • Susan herself presented the award.
  • I’ll do it myself.

In this case, the pronouns clearly still reflect back to their antecedents Susan and I, respectively. However, they have a different relationship than other categories do. They don’t serve as a replacement for the noun, but instead emphasize it. So, in the first sentence, the phrase “Susan herself” adds weight to the notion that Susan is the person who presented the award. It might imply that her presenting an award is a rarity; perhaps she is someone very important or high-ranking.

Similarly, the second sentence is one that we all have probably heard and used several times before. It emphasizes that the speaker will do the action in question, as opposed to anyone else; it implies that no one else is capable or willing, perhaps, at least in the speaker’s mind.

What are reflexive pronouns used for in this case? They act like a magnifying glass, focusing the thought of the sentence on a particular subject/object and making it clear that the presence of that noun is somehow important.

But Wait…

Can a reflexive pronoun be used in any other contexts than the ones we’ve just looked at? These parts of speech have come to, occasionally, be used in other contexts—but that doesn’t mean it’s grammatically correct. Have you ever heard someone, in casual conversation perhaps, say something like:

  • If you could forward the email to myself, that would be great.

It sounds awkward, but maybe a little bit familiar, right? A turn of phrase like this, though not unheard of, is grammatically incorrect. When we define reflexive pronoun, the key to the definition is its intensifying or subject/object relationship to a previous noun. In the above example, myself does not correspond to the subject of the sentence (you) and does not intensify any other instance of a noun in the sentence.

You’re likely to see sentences structured in this way when inexperienced writers are attempting to make their writing sound more professional, formal, or polished. Unfortunately, writing in this style will have the exact opposite effect. Just use the words you normally would. So in the case of the sentence above, myself should be replaced by me.

If you’re trying to write formally, your best bet is to familiarize yourself with MLA format and APA format, the two most commonly used styles for formal writing. You can study up on these, plus more styles, on our site.

Let’s Review

Let’s wrap this up with a few examples of questions you might see on a reflexive and intensive pronouns worksheet to test your mastery of this concept. If you want to brush up before testing your skills, this informative reference may help.

Questions 1-2: In the sentences below, assume that the blank is a reflexive pronoun and choose one that fits correctly.

  1. She bought ___ a jacket with her birthday money.
  2. I asked __ what I would have done in that situation.

Question 3: Let’s try this: out of the three sentences below, which one uses its reflexive structure incorrectly?

  • A. Did the executives give themselves a bonus?
  • B. He packed himself a sandwich for lunch.
  • C. Can I get yourself anything else?

What did you choose? Here are the answers:

  1. For this instance, you would have wanted herself, reflecting back to she.
  2. This sentence requires myself to indicate that the speaker questioned herself internally.
  3. The third sentence (C.) is the incorrect one because it does not have the correct correlation between the pronoun and the antecedent (they should refer to the same thing).

By this point, you should feel comfortable using reflexive pronouns in your writing! Use them wisely.