“Would you like some ice cream?” asked Mother.
“Yippee! All three of us would!” cried six-year-old Dean.
“Three? I only see you.”
“Oh, no, there are three: me, myself, and I. That means three bowls of ice cream!”
“Oh,” she said, coughing once and rolling her eyes.
Thus began Dean’s disastrous, short-lived career as a stand-up comedian.
But seriously, folks—when do we use the pronouns me, myself, and I? Specifically, how do we properly use reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, herself, ourselves, etc.)? Are they just another way of saying I/me, you, her, and us? I won’t leave you in suspense: the answer is NO. Here’s a chart showing all reflexive (and intensive) pronouns:
Reflexive pronouns show that an action was performed by someone on himself or herself (or by something on itself). Ex.: “I made the cherry pie myself.” “Mary gave herself a pep talk.” “The oven cleans itself.”
Intensive pronouns (the same list as above) are used for emphasis. They let the reader know that an action was performed by or directed toward only the person or thing that the pronoun refers to. The distinction between intensive and reflexive pronouns is often subtle, and in the interest of avoiding confusion, I’ll leave it at that.
Many folks misuse reflexive pronouns. For example, I’m currently reading a novel by a highly successful author. In the introduction he wrote, “The nasty side of myself wanted to answer that . . .” A few pages later, he wrote, “Fiction . . . always has the
possibility of being about ourself.” Both of those are nonstandard usages. He is using reflexive pronouns where he should have used personal pronouns. Since I usually read with a pencil in hand, I crossed out the reflexive pronouns myself and ourself and in the margin scrawled “My nasty side” or “The nasty side of me” and “the possibility of being about us” in the margins.
So why are those wrong (or, if you flinch at the word wrong, I can use the term nonstandard), and what’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal: a reflexive pronoun always needs an antecedent (the noun it’s taking the place of) that is the same person or thing. If there is a myself in a sentence, there must be an I as its antecedent: “I bought myself a new car.” If there is a yourself, there must be a you as its antecedent: “You did yourself a favor when you changed into that dress.” If there is an ourself (which is wrong anyway—the correct plural form is ourselves) there must be an antecedent—usually a we. “We helped ourselves to some cake and ice cream.”
It would be incorrect to say, “My wife and myself went to the movies last weekend.” Since reflexive pronouns are to be used when the object reflects or bends back (thus is reflexive) on the subject, this won’t work. In this sentence, myself is part of the subject and is therefore wrong. Reflexive pronouns cannot function as the subject of a clause or sentence. The correct pronoun here would be I: “My wife and I (compound subject) went to the movies last weekend.”
Let me leave you with a couple more examples of incorrect and correct uses of personal and reflexive pronouns:
- “The chef cooked a gourmet meal for myself last week.” (Incorrect.) The reflexive pronoun myself must refer back to an antecedent. There is none.
- “I cooked a gourmet meal for myself last week.” (Correct. A lie, but grammatically correct because myself refers to its antecedent, I.)
- “Curry threw the ball to myself and I dunked it.” (Incorrect. Again, there’s no antecedent for myself, so a reflexive pronoun is inappropriate.)
- “Curry threw the ball to me, and I dunked it.” (Correct. The objective personal pronoun me is appropriate; no reflexive pronoun is needed.)
Isn’t English grammar fun? (If you disagree, please don’t leave myself a nasty comment.)
© 2018 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.