Friday, October 25, 2013

Reflecting on Reflexive Pronouns

I’ll admit it up front: misusing reflexive pronouns (which are pronouns that end in –self or –selves) is a pet peeve of mine, so when I read this sentence from a letter written by Toronto’s mayor, I cringed:

“Mr. [X] has demonstrated to myself that he has a great work ethic and has always shown tact and diplomacy.”

As the name implies, reflexive pronouns reflect back on the subject of the sentence. Here’s a simple example: She bathes herself. I like this example because the mental image it presents makes it easy to envision the subject of the sentence doing something to herself.

Another way of describing when it’s ok to use a reflexive pronoun is when the subject and object are the same entity. In the mayor’s sentence, the subject (Mr. X) and the object (the author of the sentence – in this case, the mayor) are not the same entity, so “myself” is clearly wrong. The proper pronoun in that sentence is “me”: “Mr. X demonstrated to me that he has a great work ethic…”

If these explanations don’t make use of reflexive pronouns clear enough, here’s how MS Word’s grammar help explains why “myself” is incorrect in a sentence like the one the mayor wrote:

Reflexive Pronoun Use: It is incorrect to use "myself" alone as a subject, as in "Jake and myself went to town," or alone as an object, as in "You will talk only to myself."

Pronouns ending in –self (or –selves) can also be used to emphasize something, in which case grammarians call them intensive pronouns (rather than reflexive pronouns). As the name “intensive pronouns” implies, such pronouns are inserted for emphasis – to make you take notice of the noun or pronoun they go with.  Here’s an example: Tom himself did the laundry.

Given how simple the rules for using reflexive pronouns are (or, looked at it another way, the relatively few situations when using reflexive pronouns makes sense), I wonder why they are so often misused. In Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to punctuation, spelling, style, usage and grammar, Anne Stilman suggested that one reason writers might insert reflexive pronouns where they don’t belong is because they may think that “it sounds more important or genteel to say myself than plain I or me would do”.  That may be the case, but it certainly backfires because doing so only makes the writer seem illiterate.

So, next time you’re tempted to tack a “–self” or “–selves” onto a pronoun, stop and be sure to consider whether doing so is correct.