This week’s blog is about the difference between reflexive pronouns and emphasising pronouns. I have chosen this topic because it is one that a lot of students seem to easily get confused about.

Firstly we must understand when to use a reflexive pronoun and when to use an emphasising pronoun. We use a reflexive pronoun when the subject and the object in a sentence are the same person or thing. This means that the doer of the action is also the receiver of the action. The action does not pass from one person or thing to another person or thing, but it reflects back to the same person or thing. For example, if I say “I washed myself, before dressing”, the subject is ‘I’ and the object is ‘myself’, which means that I am both the subject and the object. In this case the word ‘myself’ is reflexive. Another example is to say “he always talks to himself, when he is alone”. In this sentence ‘he’ is the subject and ‘himself’ is the object’, which means that he is both the doer of the action and the receiver of the action, he is not talking to anybody else. This means that the word ‘himself’ is reflexive.

Download Exercise

The reflexive pronouns are myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. We use them when the action comes back to the person or thing who does it. In an abstract sense, you could say it is like a mirror effect. When you look into a mirror, your image is reflected back at you; you see yourself, not someone else. In this case, grammatically you are doing the action to yourself, not someone else; the action is reflected back to you.
The reason people confuse reflexive pronouns with emphasising pronouns is because they are the same words. The emphasising pronouns are myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. However, they are not used in the same way as reflexive pronouns.

An emphasising pronoun is used to emphasis who does the action in a particular sentence. For example if we say “John did his homework himself”, it means that he did his homework and not someone else. We are emphasising the fact that he was the person who did the homework, not somebody else. If we say “we completed the project ourselves”, it means that we did it, not someone else.

You can clearly see the difference between an emphasising pronoun and a reflexive pronoun. With an emphasising pronoun, the action goes from the subject to the object but the object is not the same person or thing as the subject. The action does not reflect back to the doer.
Sometimes we put the word ‘by’ before an emphasising pronoun to give the meaning of ‘alone’. For example if we say “I cooked the meal by myself”, this means that I cooked the meal alone and without any help from anybody else. I did it on my own, nobody else helped me. If I say “she drew the picture by herself” it means that she did it alone, without any help.

Some people find it difficult to understand the difference between “I painted the walls myself” and “I painted the walls by myself”. Firstly the difference is that if you say “by myself”, you are emphasising the fact that you did it alone without any help. If you say “I painted the walls myself” it means that you did it, not someone else, but you could have had a friend to help you; you didn’t hire a painter to do it. When you add the word ‘by’ it means that you did it alone, you didn’t have a friend to help you, nor did you hire anyone to do it.

So, although the reflexive pronouns and the emphasising pronouns are the same words, they are used in completely different ways. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is to identify whether or not the subject and the object are the same person or thing. If so, then the words ‘myself’ etc… are reflexive pronouns; if not, then they are emphasising pronouns.
 
G. Harman
 

Download Exercise