Reflexive Pronouns | Examples, Definition & List

A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that’s used in the object position when the subject and object of the sentence are the same (i.e., to show someone acting on themselves). For example, “himself” is a reflexive pronoun in the sentence “He hurt himself while cooking.”

Reflexive pronouns end in -self or -selves depending on whether they’re singular or plural. Each of the personal pronouns, along with the impersonal pronoun “one,” has a reflexive form. They are listed in the table below.

Reflexive Pronouns

How are reflexive pronouns used in sentences?

A reflexive pronoun is used in the same places where an object pronoun would normally appear. The reflexive pronoun is used to avoid confusion when the object of the sentence is the same person or thing as the subject.

Example: Object pronoun vs. reflexive pronoun
Jane congratulated her on a job well done. [She congratulated someone else.]

Jane congratulated herself on a job well done.

Like an object pronoun, a reflexive pronoun can serve as either a direct or indirect object. The same pronoun is used in either case.

  • A direct object is the person or thing directly affect by the action of the verb.
  • An indirect object is the person or thing that receives the direct object.
Example: Reflexive pronouns as direct and indirect objects
He looks out for himself.

You ought to give yourself a break.

The dog is scratching itself again.

It’s important to allow oneself some time to recover from an illness.

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Common mistakes with reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are commonly misused in ways that are important to avoid in formal writing. The two most common mistakes are:

Reflexive pronouns used in place of subject or object pronouns

Reflexive pronouns, especially “myself,” are commonly used inappropriately in an attempt to sound more formal in professional communication. Remember that “myself” is not just a fancy version of “I” or “me”; it plays a different grammatical role.

This commonly occurs in compound subjects or objects like “Steven or myself.” In the subject position, such a phrase is always incorrect. In the object position, it’s almost always incorrect, although it could be correct in such an unlikely sentence as “I talk to Steven or myself.”

To spot the error, consider how the sentence would sound if you removed the other words making up the subject or object. This also helps you to decide whether you need a subject or object pronoun instead:

  • Please reach out to Steven or myself if you have any questions. [“reach out to myself”]
  • Please reach out to me or Steven if you have any questions. [“reach out to me”]
  • Emil and myself will be your instructors for the day. [“myself will be”]
  • Emil and I will be your instructors for the day. [“I will be”]

“Hisself,” “theirselves,” and “theirself”

Because some reflexive pronouns are formed using the possessive pronoun in combination with “-self” (e.g., my + self = myself), another common mistake is to assume this rule applies to the formation of all reflexive pronouns, producing misspellings such as “hisself,” “theirselves,” and “theirself.”

In fact, these reflexives are formed using the object pronoun instead of the possessive, so the correct spellings are himself, themselves, and themself.

Themselves vs. themself

You may have noticed that plural reflexive pronouns end in -selves instead of -self. This creates an issue when using the singular “they.” Because themselves is traditionally plural, it has the plural ending, but some argue that it should have a singular ending when it’s used in a singular sense: themself.

The use of the singular “they” is now widely endorsed by style guides, but the issue of whether to use themself hasn’t been decided yet. Usage of this singular version is increasing, but it isn’t regarded as standard by all authorities yet. The safest option for now is still to use themselves for the singular form too.

Example: Themself or themselves
Everyone should know how to protect themself/themselves.

Ourself

Ourself is a rarely used and old-fashioned version of ourselves. It’s used when a person refers to themselves in the plural.

This is traditionally done by monarchs; it’s called the royal “we.” For example, a queen might say “We will seat ourself by the window” in reference to herself. Outside of such unusual usages as this, you should stick with ourselves and avoid writing ourself.

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“By” + reflexive pronoun

Writing “by” followed by a reflexive pronoun (e.g., “by myself”) creates a prepositional phrase meaning “without help from anyone else” or “alone.”

Examples: “By” + reflexive pronoun
I did it all by myself. It was hard work.

One shouldn’t spend too much time by oneself.

By itself, this trend didn’t mean much, but in combination with other factors, it had great consequences.

Reflexive vs. intensive pronouns

All reflexive pronouns can also be used in combination with another noun or pronoun to place special emphasis the person or thing in question. When used in this way, they are called intensive pronouns. The intensive pronoun may appear directly after the noun or pronoun modified or at another point in the sentence.

The meaning of an intensive pronoun is often something like “and nobody/nothing else,” although they can also be used for other kinds of emphasis, such as distinguishing the speaker from other people.

Examples: Intensive pronouns
They did it themselves. We weren’t involved at all.

I myself have never been to Tokyo, but I’ve heard good things about it.

The man himself is here!

Reflexive vs. reciprocal pronouns

The reciprocal pronouns in English are each other and one another. They are similar to reflexive pronouns in that they are used in the object position to refer back to the subject, but they do so in a different way:

  • Reflexive pronouns show a subject acting on itself.
  • Reciprocal pronouns show a group of subjects acting on each other.
Examples: Reflexive vs. reciprocal pronouns
The two cats washed themselves. [Each cat washed itself.]

The two cats washed each other. [Each cat washed the other cat.]

People should help themselves. [They should act out of self-interest.]

People should help one another. [They should help others.]

Frequently asked questions

What is a reflexive pronoun?

A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun such as “myself” that’s used to refer back to the subject of the sentence. You should use one instead of an object pronoun when the subject and object of the sentence are the same—i.e., when the subject is acting on themselves.

For example, in the sentence “She trusts herself to do this,” the person doing the trusting (“she”) is the same person who is being trusted (“herself”). If you instead said “She trusts her to do this,” “her” would be taken to refer to a different person.

The English reflexive pronouns are myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, themselves, and oneself. They can also be used as intensive pronouns.

Is “themself” a word?

Themself is a word that’s used as an alternative singular form of the reflexive pronoun or intensive pronoun themselves. It’s used in combination with the singular “they.”

But there’s still some debate about whether this usage should be considered standard. Merriam-Webster lists it as “nonstandard” but indicates that its use is increasing over time. APA Style regards it as an acceptable alternative to themselves but doesn’t require its use.

If you’re worried about correctness, our advice is to continue using themselves for both the singular and the plural sense for now.

What is the difference between reflexive and intensive pronouns?

Reflexive pronouns and intensive pronouns are identical in spelling and pronunciation: they’re the words ending in -self or -selves (e.g., “myself,” “themselves”). But they play different grammatical roles:

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Caulfield, J. (2023, May 10). Reflexive Pronouns | Examples, Definition & List. Scribbr. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/nouns-and-pronouns/reflexive-pronouns/

Sources

Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.

Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes for Scribbr about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.