Are you yourself confused by reflexive pronouns being used intensively, or is it only your students who are confused?
As we were working on the Gerald R. Ford lesson this week at ESL Library, the topic of intensive pronouns came up because of this sentence:
“President Nixon himself resigned a year later due to his involvement in an illegal cover‑up related to his re‑election campaign.”
This got us talking about reflexive pronouns that are specifically used for emphasis, which are known as intensive pronouns. But what are the differences in usage and sentence position between reflexive pronouns in general and intensive pronouns? Here is the breakdown for teaching these pronouns to your students:
Reflexive pronouns reflect the subject of the verb. Use these pronouns when the subject and object of the verb are the same person.
Reflexive pronouns are most often found in the object position. They can also appear in an indirect object position, meaning they can follow a preposition.
- We asked ourselves if the new system would actually work. (direct object)
- I really hurt myself this morning when I fell down the stairs. (direct object)
- She looked at herself in the mirror for hours. (indirect object)
- They think of themselves as upstanding members of the community. (indirect object)
Intensive pronouns are reflexive pronouns that are used to emphasize the subject or object noun.
Intensive pronouns are usually appositive, meaning they follow the subject directly. They can also follow an object.
- President Nixon himself resigned a year later due to his involvement in an illegal cover-up related to his re‑election campaign.
- Even though everyone expected her to know it already, she herself was surprised by the news.
- I am not a very punctual person myself.
- You don’t need help. You can do it yourself.
Reflexive pronouns are the object or indirect object of the main verb, and therefore will follow the verb. Intensive pronouns will never appear in an object position; they will follow a noun (appositive).
Compare the following sentences to make the distinction crystal clear:
- I cut myself. (Reflexive; myself is the object of the verb cut; I did this action to myself.)
- I cut her hair myself. (Intensive; my hair is the object of the verb cut; myself emphasizes the subject I because it’s surprising/unexpected that I cut her hair since I’m not a hairdresser.)
A preposition isn’t enough to determine whether a pronoun is reflexive or intensive. The important thing is to look for the object. Remember, if there is another object, the pronoun is probably intensive.
- Why were you staring at yourself in the mirror? (Reflexive; at yourself is the indirect object of the verb were staring.)
- You can do it by yourself (Intensive; it is the object of the verb do.)
I myself hope that you’ve enjoyed this post!
- Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 5.49.
- Collins Cobuild English Grammar, section 1.121.