Reflexive Pronouns: So Nice You’ll Say It Twice!
What is a reflexive pronoun? Reflexive pronouns add -self or -selves to a possessive pronoun. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, reflexive means “directed or turned back on itself.” “Turned back” requires that the word myself “turns back” to the word I. If I is not already in the sentence, you can’t turn back to it. Thinking about the definition of reflexive may be more useful than trying to remember wordy grammar rules.
Reflexive pronouns refer back to the person doing the action in the sentence. Here’s an easy rule to remember about when you should not use myself:
If this is the first time you’ve referred to the speaker in the sentence, then myself is wrong.
Myself Is Not a Fancy Way to Avoid Me or I
Many writers make a mistake when they try to use myself as a formal way to say me or I. Some people think that myself sounds more polite and sophisticated than me a sentence like, “If you have questions, email Karen or myself.” (Incorrect)
The correct pronoun, though, is me, like in the sentence, “If you have questions, email Karen or me.” Remember that myself is a reflexive pronoun. You can use myself if you already have I in the sentence.
When to Use a Reflexive Pronoun
You can use myself to show that the same person acts and receives the action. Myself refers to a previously mentioned subject. I bought it for myself. I love myself. I trust myself. Note that myself follows I. I is the subject or the actor. And, here, myself serves as the object of the sentence. You use myself here because I and myself are the same person.
In a sentence like, “I help myself,” I and myself are talking about the same person. This sentence is also correct because myself is showing the receiver, not the actor. It’s the direct object, and it comes after the verb.
When Not to Use a Reflexive Pronoun
When confused about the differences between me, myself, and I, people often choose myself because they think it sounds more “polite” or “sophisticated.” Don’t be afraid to choose me and I when appropriate. It’s not rude—it’s grammatically correct.
Using Myself When You Need Me
It’s hard to know the difference between me and myself because they’re both objects. Remember that objects receive actions and don’t act. That rule, however, is the reason myself exists: we use myself instead of me when the person acting is the same person receiving the action.
Myself is not the right object unless I is the subject. People usually make this mistake when they’re giving commands, making suggestions, or telling people what to do.
In a sentence like, “Call me!” The hidden subject is you. It’s almost as if you’re saying, “(you) call me!” We don’t use you because we want to show that we’re making a command.
Here are some mistakes that English speakers don’t make:
Call myself! (Incorrect)
Give it to myself. (Incorrect)
“Call Bob or myself” is wrong in the same way that “Call myself” is wrong. I is not the subject. You is the hidden subject.
Using Myself When You Need I
People never mistakenly say, “Myself visited the office,” but many people incorrectly say things like, “Bob and myself visited the office.”
Myself is wrong here because the speaker is acting in the sentence. It’s also wrong because there’s no I in the sentence to match with myself. Remember that myself refers back to I, which must already be in the sentence.
Also, remember that English doesn’t change pronouns for politeness. Myself can never be a subject pronoun. You wouldn’t say “Myself will do it.” You correctly say, “I will do it.” Even if you’re talking about yourself and another person (we), the same rule applies. “Bob and myself made the decision” is wrong in the same way that “Myself made the decision” is wrong.
Here’s what you should remember: If you didn’t already say I in your sentence, you cannot use myself.
Using I When You Need Me
Longer objects can cause even experienced writers to choose the wrong pronouns. People often say things like, “The company gave Bill and I new computers.” The correct sentence, however, is “The company gave Bill and me new computers.”
In this sentence, the object (the people receiving the action) is longer. It’s not just one word or one person. The object is “Bill and me.” You already know that me is for objects, so you know that me is correct here. While writing and speaking, you can test your grammar by using only me or I in a longer sentence like this. You’d never say, “The company gave I new computers.” For the same reason, you don’t say “Bill and I” in this sentence.
Myself should not be used to sound “polite” or “sophisticated.” If you’re at work or a business gathering, using myself incorrectly will draw negative attention, and you will not be perceived as “polite” or “sophisticated.”
We all make mistakes, but in business, grammatical mistakes must be rare. For more lessons on pronouns, check out writing tips from WordRake founder and writing expert Gary Kinder, including Back to School with Her and I and On Behalf of Myself, then sign up to receive tips in your inbox. When you’re ready to apply our writing advice with one click, try WordRake free for 7 days.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.
Danielle Cosimo is a Language Usage Analyst for WordRake. Before joining the team, she was a translator and editor for non-native English speakers applying to degree programs in the United States and the UK. Danielle is formally trained in linguistics and has a certificate in computer programming. She is fluent in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. She applies her interdisciplinary knowledge to create WordRake’s editing algorithms.