Wednesday, April 07, 2010

WNW: Reflexives!!!

Thought that maybe if I put lots of exclamation points in the title, that reflexives would sound exciting!

Did it work? :-)

Lara from Overstuffed brought up a funky English quirk with reflexive pronouns. I tried to dig around and ferret out the reason for the quirk, to no avail. So instead of explaining the history of the quirk, we'll just discuss it!

Before we get to the quirk:

What the heck are we talking about?

Reflexive pronouns are ones where an action is being performed on the subject by the subject. For example:

Tommy can feed himself now.
While making dinner, Alicia accidentally cut herself with a knife.
They looked at themselves in the mirror.
You can help yourself to a drink.

And so on.

It's important to use reflexive pronouns when they're called for. Why? Because without them, you can create sentences that are grammatically correct but totally confusing.

The following sentence is from above but without the reflexive pronoun:

While making dinner, Alicia accidentally cut her with a knife.

See the confusion?

Did Alicia accidentally cut her sister or neighbor or some other female (her) in the kitchen? Or did Alicia cut Alicia? (Did she cut herself?)


They looked at them in the mirror.

We potentially have two groups. The groups that is looking and the group that is reflected in the mirror. Or are they the same group? If it's the same group, a reflexive pronoun takes away the ambiguity:

They looked at themselves in the mirror.

Are we clear on the basics of reflexive pronouns?
(I hope?)

Then let's talk about the funky quirk!

All reflexive pronouns add "self" or "selves" to the end of another pronoun.

Some tack self/selves to the possessive form:

I / my / myself
we / our / ourselves

But other reflexives take the objective form:

he / him/ himself
(possessive form would be hisself)

their / them/ themselves
(possessive form would be theirselves)

We all know that hisself and theirselves are INCORRECT.

(We all know that, right? Please tell me you aren't saying theirselves or hisself. My twitching eye thanks you.)

But I'd really like to know the reason behind it. Why do we say myself and ourselves but himself and themselves?

It's just one more of ten thousand or so ways that English makes no sense whatsoever.

But we love it anyway.

[In case you haven't heard: Be sure to participate in Precision Editing Group's Write-a-thon on Thursday! See THIS POST for details, including the prizes!]


Kristina P. said...

Once again, I learn something new! I had no idea that this was even an English quirk.

Jordan said...

You wanna get really quirky with reflexives, turn to Spanish. Reflexives are part of the verb—sometimes even for verbs that don't seem reflexive in the slightest. And then there are the -selves. It's a craziness.

Jenny P. said...

So, what about when my three year old says that he wants do something "all by me a'self?"

Where does that fit in?

(he he. It's so very cute when he says it.)

LisAway said...

In Polish there is one word, siebie, for all of them, I, you, he, she, we they etc. I love that. It makes sense, since you already know who the subject is. Same with whatever this type of word is (possessive?) my, your, their, our etc. Just swoje, when you use the subject in the sentence. So "MY dog is brown" is MOJE pies jest bronzowy. But "I love MY dog." is JA kocham SWOJE pies. They love their dog? ONI kochajÄ… SWOJ -- shoot, I just realized that it changes with the gender, but not with who the owner or owners is/are.

That might be the most confusing comment you ever got, I bet. I'm confused, anyway.

Unknown said...

Spanish has the whole reflexive thing dialed in. Learning another language really helps to dissect and analyze your own.

I always 'giggle myself' when it's time for WNW, because I totally 'learn myself' something new every week!

I know. You wish you were as good at reflexives as me. I. Myself...


p.s. Do you know how nerve-wracking (racking? honestly, I'm a disaster today!) it is to comment on your Facebook? I second-guess every word!! (But you notice, I still pipe up!)

* said...

Your joy & zest for the English language makes me smile. I love this weekly segment on your blog.

See Mom Smile said...

Okay just discovered your blog. You are like a real writer! And just commentin on your blog is intimidating. If poor grammer and punctuation bug you then you don't want to read my blog. I am a BYU drop out. BUT I was a journalism major for about a month. Does that count?

wendy said...

I hope you don't get that "twitchy eye thing" when you visit my blog. I am a terrible writer and I know it.
terrible speller
terrible grammer-ist (see)

but I love the things you teach me

Anonymous said...

Fear not! Your eye is safe from me. (Hopefully!)

I hope to participate tonight but that might depend on the wildness of my children. =O

Lara Neves said...

Sigh. Somehow I thought that would be the answer. :)

I think all the latin languages have the reflexives built in, so it's much easier. Although, Romanian has a construct where you can emphasize it further with something similar to the way we do it in English.

Fun stuff!

Rebecca Blevins said...

How I love WNW! Thank you for further edumacatin' us.

(Did that make your eye twitch just a little?)

DeNae, I not only do that when I comment on her FB page (which I do rarely), I do it when I comment here as well. ;)

Jessie Sams said...

There are entire books with theories for the history of the reflexive pronouns in English, so I won't attempt to try to belittle those theories by thinking I can adequately explain them in a comment on a blog.

However, I will say that in Old English, the reflexive was either nonexistent (as in 'me' could be translated as 'me' or 'myself') or was represented in two words, with the pronoun and 'self' in whatever case was needed for the construction (generally accusative or dative). Since the single-word form of reflexives was something that was grammaticalized over time, it's actually quite amazing we can see patterns in the multiple forms of pronouns at all.

Also, I will point out that some dialects say 'meself' instead of 'myself,' which means that really the object (or accusative/dative) form of the pronoun is actually the expected form. Notice that 'itself' and 'herself' can be interpreted as accusative/dative forms rather than possessive forms.

As far as 'ourselves' goes, I would think part of the reason it latched on instead of 'usselves' is that English isn't a fan of having a word end in the same beginning as the next morpheme; in other words, having the 'us' directly followed by '-selves' so that identical sounds are pushed together at the morpheme boundaries is awkward for most English speakers. And, for the most part, English likes to avoid awkward pronunciations...

Like I said, there are a lot of theoretical considerations you could look into, but I'd rather just delight in the fact that our language has those quirks than worrying about grounding them all in theory. Just don't tell my students that. :)

Annette Lyon said...

Jessie, Thanks SO MUCH for this! My History of the English Language course was taught by a woman who didn't know what she was doing, alas. I eat this stuff up.

I did notice how herself/itself could be either, which is exactly why I didn't use them here.

I may have to call on you sometime for future WNWs. :)

Jo said...

I do love words. I suppose the reason why they don't do that, if for the same reason it is ox-oxen, but not box-boxen. Tickles my funny bone!

Chas Hathaway said...

Oh, man. I've got some work to do! The whole them, themselves, aaah!

Then again, I think I'll just change every reflexive in my writing with the name "Bob." That way there can be a weird ghost like character in my writing who has no part in the story except random presence.

Tommy can feed himself now.
While making dinner, Alicia accidentally cut herself with a knife.
They looked at themselves in the mirror.
You can help yourself to a drink.

Can be changed to:

Tommy can feed Bob now.
While making dinner, Alicia accidentally cut Bob with a knife.
They looked at Bob in the mirror.
You can help Bob to a drink.

Hey! That could start a whole new genre - Paranormal Reflexive Fiction.

You've got to admit, it's got a ring to it. It could really catch on! I could give Rachel Nunes a run for her money.



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