Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Hello English learners! Here is another grammar lesson. It is about reflexive and emphatic pronouns in English. Even if you’re an advanced English learner, I’m sure you sometimes have your doubts about this subject.

Let’s clear things out!

These pronouns are formed by adding -self (for singular pronouns) and -selves (for plural pronouns) to object pronouns. Look at the table:

Personal Pronoun (singular)Reflexive pronounPersonal pronoun (plural)Reflexive pronoun
He, she, itHimself, herself, itselfThey Themselves
Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Reflexive Pronouns

We normally use reflexive pronouns when the subject and the object are the same person or thing. We use them after certain verbs such as: burn, cut, hurt, dry,  introduce, laugh at, teach, behave, enjoy, etc.

For example:

  • Simon is not coming to work today because he cut himself on a sharp knife.
  • As soon as he got out of the water, Nathan quickly dried himself with a clean towel.
  • Mathew hurt himself while he was cycling.
  • Did you know that Oprah Winfrey taught herself to read when she was three?
  • Let me introduce myself. My name’s Sara.
  • You’re going to burn yourself out unless you slow down.

We can also use reflexive pronouns with the verbs be, look, seem, and feel to describe emotions or states.

For example:

  • Linda has changed a lot. She doesn’t look herself anymore.
  • I saw Debora at the funeral. She didn’t seem like herself.
  • Since Martin felt himself as a part of a group, he told the newcomers to take their seats.

Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

We can also use reflexive pronouns with prepositions.

For example:

  • Have a nice trip and take care of yourself!
  • James laughed at himself when he finished writing the blog post.

However, don’t use them with prepositions of place.

For example:

  • Two people were standing in a queue in front of me. (not in front of myself)
  • While he was walking, Peter noticed there was a man behind him. (not behind himself).

Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Emphatic pronouns

Emphatic pronouns have the same form as reflexive pronouns. We use them to emphasise that the action is performed by a subject, i.e. to say that the doer of the action did it alone, or without anybody’s help.

For example:

  • Katie decorated the fir tree all by herself. (she did it alone, without anybody’s help)
  • Jim himself answered the door. (he personally opened the door)
  • I think they themselves are responsible for this bad situation.

When to use BY

We use BY to emphasize that the subject of the verb did something alone.

For example:

  • Although I offered to help, Mildred tidied the house by herself.
  • Greg travelled to Greece all by himself because he wanted to be alone.

Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Personal pronoun ‘oneself

The indefinite personal pronoun oneself refers to people in general and it doesn’t express a person, number or gender. It has the same meanings as other reflexive and emphatic pronouns, and we normally use it when the subject is expressed by an indefinite pronoun one.

For example:

  • This is something one can’t do oneself. 
  • One has to look after oneself these days.

You can use yourself instead of oneself in a less formal context, as well.

  • This is something you can’t do yourself.
  • You have to look after yourself these days.
 Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English
Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Idiomatic expressions with reflexive and emphatic pronouns

Enjoy yourself 

Meaning:  to have a good time

  • Simona enjoyed herself sunbathing on the beach.
  • Welcome to the party! Enjoy yourselves! 

Be by yourself

Meaning: to enjoy your own company.

  • He’s one of those people who love being by themselves.
  • Sandra lived in the big apartment all by herself.

Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Live by yourself

Meaning: to live alone.

  • Tara has lived by herself ever since she got a job and became independent.
  • My grandpa has been living by himself ever since my grandma died.

Behave yourself

Meaning: to behave appropriately; way of telling children to be good.

  • Children, you’d better behave yourselves! Otherwise, you’ll regret it!
  • If you had behaved yourself, you wouldn’t have got into trouble in the first place.

Help yourself

Meaning: a way of permitting somebody to use something.

  • The food is on the table. Please, help yourself!
  • Feel free to help yourself to anything in the fridge.

Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Make yourself at home

Meaning: a way of inviting someone to feel comfortable.

  • Welcome dear guests! Come in and make yourself at home.
  • You just make yourself at home, dinner is almost ready.

Keep something to yourself

Meaning: to keep a secret.

  • There are some things you shouldn’t share with others but keep them to yourself.
  • Sharon didn’t talk much, she seemed to keep much to herself.

Make yourself heard/understood

Meaning: to make someone hear/understand you.

  • Gary had to shout to make himself heard in the crowd.
  • The main problem was that Anna couldn’t make herself understood properly.

Dig yourself into a hole 

Meaning: to get into a difficult situation.

  • You must be very careful with your online payments unless you want to dig yourself into a hole. 
  • That company dug itself into a hole with its bad business policy.

Reflexive and Emphatic Pronouns in English

Tie yourself up in knots

Meaning: to get so confused that you can’t explain things clearly.

  • John is an intelligent and hard-working student but he always ties himself up in knots at the exams.
  • Peter always ties himself into a knot when he sees Samantha. I suppose he’s in love with her.

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