Tips from the Editor – Me, Myself and I

Posted on Updated on

editor1aBy Kelly Laycock

In a previous post, “You and I vs. You and Me”, I noted the following: “Personal pronouns come in four varieties: subjective, objective, possessive and reflexive. In first person, that would be I, me, mine and myself, respectively.” In that post, we looked at subjective and objective personal pronouns. I then received a request from a reader to expand on the proper use of reflexive pronouns, and I am more than happy to oblige! Thanks for the request.     

Let’s start with Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), a guide I refer to a lot! It takes us a step back, to look at the basic properties of pronouns in general, and leads us to a couple of important concepts that relate directly to reflexives. “A pronoun has four properties: number, person, gender, and case… A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number, person, and gender.” [1]

Let’s outline these four properties a little more clearly with a sample of the four types of personal pronouns stated above:


Hopefully we are all familiar with number, person and gender; case is likely less familiar, but as we can see, it involves the function of those pronouns as subject, object, reflexive or possessive within a sentence. This concept of function is an important one for understanding reflexives.

The second important concept is that all pronouns need an antecedent. Like its synonym precedent (which you lawyers are more than a little familiar with), an antecedent is something that comes before something else. In the grammatical sense, the antecedent is a word or phrase that precedes another word that represents it (sometimes it comes in the same sentence or sometimes it has been stated earlier and is understood without being repeated). And that’s where our pronouns come into play – we use them to keep from repeating the same words in the same sentence (in fact, I just used the word them to represent the antecedent pronoun! Did you notice?) Let’s break it down:

Susie saw Matt at the window and waved to Matt.

This is what the world would look like if we didn’t use pronouns! Sounds a little redundant, right? So we replace the second Matt with a pronoun:

Susie saw Matt at the window and waved to him.

Suzie = subject noun of the sentence
= the direct object noun and also the antecedent for the pronoun him
him = the pronoun representing the antecedent Matt

In this example, just as CMS suggests, the pronoun must agree with the antecedent in number, person and gender. Matt is singular, third person and male, as is the pronoun him (our chart above confirms that) Notice, too, that they also both fill the role of object – Matt in the placement of it as the direct object of the verb, and him because of its form as an objective pronoun (rather than he or his or himself).

So far so good. Let’s try a more complicated example:

Justice Jones reviewed the charges against the accused and sentenced him to community service.

In this example, we can spot the pronoun himwith no problem, but what is the antecedent? Well, there are two nouns that come before, Justice Jones or the accused (the charges are not a person and cannot be replaced by him). So let’s replace the pronoun with the two possibilities and see what happens:

Justice Jones reviewed the charges against the accused and sentenced Justice Jones to community service.

Justice Jones reviewed the charges against the accused and sentenced the accused to community service.

As speakers of English, we somehow knew that Justice Jones couldn’t be replaced by him. But if we break it down, the rules of agreement support that conclusion: the pronounhim is singular, third person and masculine, and so is the accused*. Justice Jones is also singular, third person and gender neutral (which means Justice Jones can swing either way!), so it is more than just agreement that convinces us that Justice Jones is not the antecedent to him. We know the antecedent and pronoun must refer to the same person or thing, and in order for that to be the case here, a specific change would need to be made:

Justice Jones sentenced him to community service.
Justice Jones
sentenced himself to community service.

The second sentence is called reflexive.

Let’s get this straight:

Non-reflexive (subject ≠ object) Reflexive (subject = object)
I saw you at the hearing. I saw myself in the mirror.
Justice Jones sent him the judgment. Justice Jones sent himself the judgment.
We defended the victims. We defended ourselves.
The accused blamed her. The accused blamed herself.

The difference may seem so obvious, but what about something like this [2]:

The staff and myself thank you for your contribution.
Deliver the equipment to my partner or myself.

We hear constructions like this all the time and maybe they’ve given us pause – or not! But now that we’ve discussed the basic principles of pronouns, perhaps you noticed that there are a couple of problems here. In the first example, we see a reflexive pronoun being used as a subject. Talk about a no-no! In the second sentence, the reflexive pronoun is correctly being used as an object, but where is its antecedent subject? Remember, reflexives need the subject and the object to be the same person, and they need to appear in the same sentence or it just isn’t a reflexive:

The staff and I thank you for your contribution.(I because it is part of the subject)
Deliver the equipment to my partner or me. (me because it is part of the object)

Now that we all have the hang of it, I feel that I need to mention that there is one other construction that uses the reflexive pronoun but isn’t a true reflexive. They are called intensive pronouns. Since we are all experts in pronouns, we shouldn’t have any trouble spotting the difference:

Justice Jones sent himself the judgment.
Justice Jones sent the judgment himself.

Justice Jones = subject noun in both sentences

the judgment = direct object noun (the thing being sent) in both sentences

himself = indirect object pronoun (the receiver of the direct object) in the first sentence
intensive pronoun in the second sentence (not the receiver of the object)

In my next post, we will finish up the personal pronouns by looking at the pitfalls of possessive pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours and theirs.

*As an aside: I’m not being sexist here. The accused is technically gender neutral and could most certainly be female, but it is the pronoun him that dictates the gender in this sentence. The third person singular pronouns he, she, him, her, his, hers, himself and herself all do their best to relieve the ambiguity of sentences overwhelmed by the gender neutrality inherent in English! We will touch on this again when we come to possessive pronouns.




[1] “5.30 Four properties of pronouns” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010) online:

[2] 5.49 Reflexive and intensive pronouns” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010) online:

Tell us what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s