Unruly Reflexives

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

 

In my post of 10 April I discussed the use of myself in place of both I and me. Earlier this month I reported Pam Peters’s desire to reinstate themself to its rightful place among the reflexive pronouns.

Any further examination of the English reflexive pronouns shows they are a right old mess. Just to remind any who may be uncertain, the reflexive pronouns are distinguished by the singular suffix –self and the plural suffix -selves. Apart from the substitution of myself for I and me, they have two uses. They reflect the action of a clause back onto its subject, as in We frightened ourselves. They also emphasise some other element in a clause, as in We weren’t frightened ourselves, but some of the others were.

Here’s how they’re a mess. In Standard English, myself, yourself, herself, ourselves and yourselves all use the possessive determiner for the first part, but himself and themselves use the accusative form of the personal pronoun. (OK, herself could be either, because they’re identical.)  Itself could be from the nominative or  accusative form of the personal pronoun (they, too, are identical), or, with only a little adaptation, from the possessive determiner. This leads to the curious situation in which themselves, using the accusative form, is standard, but the analogous meself isn’t. At the same time, theirselves, analogous with ourselves, is also nonstandard. Not only that, but in the third person singular alone, feminine herself taken as if from the possessive determiner, is standard, but mascuiine hisself, also using the possessive determiner, isn’t.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ refers to Bishop Lowth as regarding himself and themselves as corruptions, preferring instead his self and their selves. In this he had consistency on his side, but others would have none of it. Without referring specifically to the bishop, the OED also notes that there has been a tendency from the 14th century to treat self as a noun (= person, personality), and substitute the possessive his for him and their for them, but adds that this is now nonstandard, except where some other word intervenes to give his own/very/good/true self or their own/sweet/very selves.

So what are the rules for forming reflexive pronouns in Standard English? They go like this.

In the singular, the first and second person reflexive pronouns are formed by adding the suffix –self to the first and second person singular possessive determiners to produce myself and yourself. In the third person, they are formed by adding the same suffix to the accusative form of the masculine personal pronoun to produce the masculine himself; by adding it to the accusative form of the feminine personal pronoun (or to the third person feminine possessive determiner) to produce feminine herself; and by adding it to the nominative (or accusative) form of the neuter personal pronoun (or, if you suppress the final –s, to the third person singular neuter possessive pronoun) to produce neuter itself.

In the plural, the suffix selves is added to the first and second plural possessive determiners to produce ourselves and yourselves. In the third person, –selves is added to the accusative form of the third person plural personal pronoun to produce themselves. An alternative is formed using the singular suffix -self to produce themselfused by those who wish to refer back to, or to emphasise, singular they.

In some nonstandard dialects, some of the rules are different. In the singular, the first person reflexive pronoun is formed not from the first person singular possessive determiner, but from the accusative form of the first person singular personal pronoun, to produce meself. The third person masculine reflexive pronoun is formed not from the accusative form of the masculine singular personal pronoun, but from the possessive determiner, to produce hisself. And in the plural the third person reflexive pronoun is formed not from the accusative form of the third person plural personal pronoun, but from the third person plural possessive determiner to produce theirselves.

Got that?

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6 Comments

Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language

6 responses to “Unruly Reflexives

  1. Pingback: The Negative Canon: ‘Themself’ | Caxton

  2. Jonathan Hammond

    Fascinating. Thank you, Barrie. I actually had no idea that these reflexives were in such a pickle. How is anyone supposed to learn all this?

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  3. All of English’s pronouns are in a mess, really.

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    • They are, as I’ve tried to show elsewhere. ‘Between you and I’, ‘Me and my mates are going to the pub’, ‘who’ and ‘whom’ and so on. It may take several more centuries before they’re sorted out, if ever they are.

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  4. As native speakers, we don’t. It’s the poor foreigners who have to learn it.

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