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Reflexive Vs. Intensive Pronouns

by | April 25, 2013

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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

Usage

Reflexive pronouns reflect the subject of the verb. Use these pronouns when the subject and object of the verb are the same person.

Sentence Position

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.

Examples

  • We asked ourselves if the new system would actually work.
  • I really hurt myself this morning when I fell down the stairs.
  • She looked at herself in the mirror for hours.
  • They think of themselves as upstanding members of the community.

Intensive Pronouns

Usage

Intensive pronouns are reflexive pronouns that are used to emphasize the subject or object noun.

Sentence Position

Intensive pronouns are usually appositive, meaning they follow the subject directly. They can also follow an object.

Examples

  • 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.

Summary

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 that I cut her hair since I’m not a hairdresser.)
Note

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!

Tanya

Sources

  • Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 5.49.
  • Collins Cobuild English Grammar, section 1.121.
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Comments (31)

Team tara

Tara Benwell(Author)

While we're on this topic, can you give us any tips about oneself vs. one's self?

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

My pleasure. In the US, it's a situation similar to 'cannot / can not', where both spellings are acceptable but the first is preferred. Merriam-Webster lists the entry as 'oneself, also one's self'. When MW uses 'also', it means the second word 'occurs appreciably less often and thus is considered a secondary variant'. So I recommend always writing 'oneself'.

As for Canada and the UK, the Oxford Canadian and the Oxford Dictionary both only list 'oneself' and not the variant form. 'Oneself' looks like the correct option all around! :)

Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Here's another interesting point! In most dictionaries like Merriam-Webster, an entry that lists 'also' + another form means the form is a secondary variant and the first form is definitely preferred and is more common.

But did you know that when an entry lists 'or' + a second form, those two forms are pretty much equal variants? It's more a matter of personal choice. Note that if the words joined by 'or' are not in alphabetical order, the first is slightly more common than the second.

Am I the only one who finds this interesting? ;)

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joann candelario(Guest)

thank y0u so much f0r the inf0rmation.it really helped me a l0t on my teaching to explain further my understanding towards the t0pic.a lot of thanks

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it, Joann! Thanks for your comment.

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joann candelario(Guest)

One m0re thing, is there any word such as 'equipments'?

Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

No, I've never heard 'equipment' used as a plural form. Some non-count/plural nouns can do this to emphasize different types (foods, peoples, etc.), but I've never seen 'equipments' before.

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Cheryl V(Guest)

Thank you for sharing your ideas Miss Tanya. I was clarified on how to make this lesson easier for my students to understand.

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you, Cheryl! I'm glad this post helped. :)

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leonora aguilar(Guest)

Thank you very much Ma'am Tanya. It indeed a great help in my teaching. I am clarified. Thank you ma'am.

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're very welcome, Leonora!

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hassan yehis(Guest)

does the intensive pronoun has to follow the subject or object directly?

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You've got it, Hassan! An intensive pronoun follows the subject or object (noun) directly, whereas a reflexive pronoun follows a verb or a preposition.

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RICA MIÑOZA(Guest)

What are the similarities between them?

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Rica,

Reflexive and intensive pronouns are similar in both form (spelled the same way) and meaning (mean the same thing). The differences are in the usage and sentence positions.

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Ynah (Guest)

Hi! Thanks for this post. How about the sentence 'The special bus they built travels at 70kmph when driven by itself?' Is itself a reflexive or intensive pronoun? Thanks! :)

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That would be a reflexive pronoun because the subject and object are the same noun (bus) and it follows a preposition (by). However, this sentence sounds a little strange to me because buses are usually driven by people. Maybe 'The special bus they built travels at 70 km/h on autopilot' would be clearer?

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midathana.siva (Guest)

i know myself vnderstood

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it!

It would be more natural to say 'I myself understand this now' or 'I understand this now myself.' :)

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Janine (Guest)

What if the statement goes this way: Emma, did you take the photo by yourself? How do we consider the word yourself?

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Janine,

In your sentence 'Emma, did you take the photo by yourself?' yourself is an intensive pronoun. The trick is to look for another object (the photo). If there is another object, it's usually an intensive pronoun.

If there isn't another object, it's usually a reflexive pronoun, as in 'Emma, did you take a photo of yourself?'

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Nat (Guest)

Isn't 'the photo' still the object in Emma, did you take the photo of yourself'?

Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Nat,

In that sentence, 'the photo of yourself' is the object. I see how it's confusing! Think of it this way: 'Emma, did you take a photo of yourself by yourself?' The object 'a photo of yourself' uses a reflexive pronoun, while 'by yourself' is an intensive pronoun.

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student (Guest)

I heard once that if you could remove the pronoun and have a meaningful sentence then it is intensive if not then it is reflexive, is that true? If yes does it always work?

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's a good general rule and will help you remember which is which for the most part. But like most rules in English, it won't always work. If you look at all the examples in this post, it works most of the time, but here are some where it doesn't:

  • You can do it by yourself. (Intensive, but you can't simply remove 'by'—you could remove 'by yourself,' though)
  • We asked ourselves if the new system would actually work. (Reflexive, but you can remove 'ourselves' here, though the meaning could then be that we asked ourselves or we asked others)
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Darlene Mae(Guest)

Is it possible to use both in one sentence? If yes, could you please give an example?

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Darlene,

While I believe it would be possible, I think most sentences that used both a reflexive and intensive pronoun together would be awkward. I'll give it a go, though I wouldn't recommend doing it: 'When we asked ourselves if we should lay people off, I got so upset that I myself wanted to quit.' (ourselves = reflexive, myself = intensive)

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Joemar Gagnao(Guest)

Thank you so much Miss Tanya for sharing your ideas. You have given me a wide spectrum to really differentiate and understand between reflexive and intensive pronouns. I can now teach it very well to my students here in the Philippines.

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you for your kind words, Joemar!

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Charlise R.(Teacher)

You are definitely not the only one who finds this interesting. I'm perusing your blog in my 'off' hours. Thanks for your comments. I enjoy ESL library immensely, and my students are becoming grammar whizzes!
⭐️

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Team tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Charlise,

I'm so happy to hear you and your students enjoy the site! I'm also happy to know there are other fellow grammar lovers out there!

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