QUESTION: “Your attempts to educate others on the ins and outs of the English language are to be lauded. Can you now attack the widespread misuse of reflexive pronouns? I often hear supposedly well-educated people say things like: ‘Myself and Susan are going to the movies.’ ‘Who’s on the committee besides yourself?’ ‘If you have any questions, please get in touch with Pete or myself.’ And the list goes on and on. Thanks.” (John Haney)
ANSWER: For those who study another language, reflexive verbs are one of the first hurdles native English speakers come across. While we have reflexive verbs, like “perjure,” our verbs don’t have a reflexive form independent of the infinitive. Instead, we just add on the appropriate reflexive pronoun to match the subject.
(It’s worth noting that a language like Spanish builds our “subject-verb-object” structure into their reflexive verbs, rather than separating them as we do. Now, back to English.)
Reflexive pronouns are words like “myself,” “yourself,” “himself” and “themselves” which refer back to the subject of a sentence. We use them when the subject of a sentence is acting upon itself.
Reflexive pronouns have more nuances than I can cover in a single column, so let’s focus on how they are predominately misused. They are most often incorrectly substituted for subject or object pronouns.
There are two rules to remember about reflexive pronouns:
1. Use a reflexive pronoun when the subject and object of a sentence are the same person or thing.
2. Reflexive pronouns are always objects, never subjects.
Example: “I dressed myself this morning.” The subject of the sentence is the speaker, “I,” and the object is also the speaker. Since the subject is acting upon itself, we use a reflexive verb; “myself” in this case. You should not use reflexive pronouns as replacements for subject pronouns, as in, “Myself and Susan are going to the movies.”
To keep it simple: If the subject of a sentence is acting upon itself, use a reflexive pronoun for the direct object. If it’s not, don’t.