Pronouns

A pronoun stands in the place of a noun; wherever it’s appropriate to use a noun, it’s appropriate to use a pronoun. In everyday speech—and even in published works—it is common to see the wrong pronoun used: “yourself” instead of “you,” “herself” instead of “her,” etc.

Selfish prose

The reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves) should be used only when the subject is also the object (or one of the objects). Typical examples of correct usage:

  1. I gave myself a present. (The donor and recipient are the same.)
  2. You made it for yourself? (The maker and possessor are the same.)
  3. He bought it for himself. (The purchaser and owner are the same.)
  4. She thought herself rather clever. (The thinker and the person about whom she thought are the same.)
  5. We renovated the house ourselves. (The renovators and the people for whom they renovated are the same.)
  6. You do it for yourselves! (Those who are enjoined to act are the same as those who will benefit from the action.)
  7. They praised themselves. (The praiser and the praised are the same.)

If the subject and the object are different, non-reflexive pronouns (me, you, her, him, it, us, you, them) are called for:

  1. She gave me a present. (The donor and recipient are different.)
  2. He made it for you? (The maker and possessor are different.)
  3. They bought it for him. (The purchaser and owner are different.)
  4. We thought her rather clever. (The thinkers and the person about whom they thought are different.)
  5. He renovated the house for us. (The renovator and the people for whom he renovated are different.)
  6. She’ll do it for you! (The actor is different from those who will benefit from the action.)
  7. He praised them. (The praiser and the praised are different.)

For emphasis, you may combine a personal pronoun (I, you, she, he, it, we, they) with a reflexive pronoun:

  1. I, myself, am opposed to this motion.
  2. You, yourself, are to blame.
  3. She, herself, made the sacrifice.
  4. He, himself, did all the work.
  5. We, ourselves, are the dupes.
  6. They, themselves, are the victims.

Without emphasis, a personal pronoun (I, you, she, he, it, we, they) stands alone:

  1. I am opposed to this motion.
  2. You are to blame.
  3. She made the sacrifice.
  4. He did all the work.
  5. We are the dupes.
  6. They are the victims.

Example 1: On 28 January 2009, The Globe and Mail reported that U.S. President Barak Obama decided to delay the withdrawal of troops from Iraq: “The Democrat had originally promised to pull out troops within 16 months of taking office, but amended that yesterday to 19 months. [Defence Secretary Robert] Gates said this came after Mr. Obama heard arguments for the delay from himself and top commanders such as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

What’s wrong: Since himself is a reflexive pronoun, it must refer to the person who heard the arguments. This would require that President Obama heard arguments made by Barak Obama—that is, by himself! But the arguments heard by President Obama were those made by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen.

Correct usage: “[Defence Secretary Robert] Gates said this came after Mr. Obama heard arguments for the delay from him and top commanders such as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Example 2: On 11 April 2009, business columnist Avner Mandelman reported his belief that the global recession will be followed by a period of significant inflation: “How sure am I of this? Both myself and those I talk to are fairly confident …”

What’s wrong: Mr. Mandelman’s intention is to ask Who is confident? and to answer I am fairly confident—and others are, too. But in his column, Mr. Mandelman answers Myself is fairly confident, using the reflexive pronoun without a personal pronoun to which it can refer.

Correct usage: “How sure am I of this? Both I and those I talk to are fairly confident …” or “How sure am I of this? Both I, myself, and those I talk to are fairly confident …”

Example 3: In the 1983 novel The Robots of Dawn, this dialogue appears as part of a murder investigation:

Gladia Delmarre: “No, no, when Jander died, there was no other human being in the house.”
Elijah Baley: “Except yourself?”
Gladia Delmarre: “Except myself. Just as there was no one in the house except myself when my husband was killed.”

What’s wrong: Yourself is a reflexive pronoun which should be used only when there is a subject to which it can refer back; the same is true for the pronoun myself.

Correct usage:

Gladia Delmarre: “No, no, when Jander died, there was no other human being in the house.”
Elijah Baley: “Except you?”
Gladia Delmarre: “Except me. Just as there was no one in the house except me when my husband was killed.”

Example 4: As the murder investigation in The Robots of Dawn continues, an official (Han Fastolfe) is asked to absent himself from the interrogation:

Han Fastolfe: “Why?”
Elijah Baley: “Because I want to speak to Gladia alone.”
Han Fastolfe: “To badger her?”

What’s right: Here the object of the suspected badgering (Gladia Delmarre) is not the same as the subject who is suspected of wanting to badger (Baley), so the pronoun “her” is the correct one. Contrast this correct usage with the following, and note how the (incorrect) change of pronoun changes the meaning of Fastolfe’s question: his now-nonsensical question positions Gladia as the person who performs the badgering—of Gladia!

Incorrect usage:

Elijah Baley: “Because I want to speak to Gladia alone.”
Han Fastolfe: “To badger herself?”

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