143. Problems Using“-self” Words



-self” words can go after verbs or nouns to express a variety of special meanings


Forms of "-self" Words

Forms of “-self” Words

Words that end in -self – technically known as “reflexive pronouns” – are usually said to have three main uses: as a verb’s object that means the same as the subject; to add emphasis to a noun or noun equivalent; and after by to mean “without help”.

All of these uses are covered in most mainstream grammar descriptions. My purpose in considering them here is threefold: to highlight some aspects that I have not found described elsewhere, to assist understanding of the more complicated points by describing them in my own particular way, and to show how -self words are just as important in professional writing as in the less formal communication from which mainstream grammars mostly take their examples.



An example of this use is:

(a) The parasite usually attaches itself to its victim.

It is clear that itself here, the object of attaches, means the same as the subject parasite. There are a number of interesting observations that can be made about the grammar and meaning of -self words in the object position.

1. Observations about Grammar

One question is how object -self pronouns are different from complements, since complements too can correspond to the subject of their verb (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). The answer, I think, is that -self words are considered objects if they follow a verb that normally has an object rather than a complement. It is only if they follow a typical complement-taking verb, such as BE, BECOME, FEEL, REMAIN or SEEM, that they will instead be a complement, like this:

(b) After the medication the patient was again herself.

This is a rather idiomatic use of -self words that is not normally mentioned in mainstream grammars. It means “normal”.

Secondly, verbs with an object -self word cannot be passive-voice paraphrases, as they can in some other European languages. For example, the letter sent itself does not mean the same as the letter was sent. Since -self words usually carry the idea of independent effort, the former says that the letter somehow managed to get into the post without the help of any living thing. As that is unlikely to happen, English speakers would simply avoid the -self construction (for a way of avoiding the passive verb as well, see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs).

Another grammatical point that is not always made sufficiently clear is the fact that -self words can be indirect objects as well as direct ones. Indirect objects are explained in the Guinlist post 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object. An example of a -self word in this role is:

(c) Teachers must allow themselves enough time to cover a point thoroughly.

Once again, themselves corresponds to the subject teachers. The direct object here is enough time. We know that themselves is an indirect object because it can change places with the object, with for placed before it.

Finally, the use of -self words after imperative verbs is worth mentioning. A famous example is Know Yourself, a translation of words on an important temple in Ancient Greece. What is the “understood” grammatical subject of imperative verbs like this? The fact that the -self word after one has to be yourself or yourselves shows that it must be you. For more about imperative verbs, see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing.


2. Observations about Meaning

(I) CONTRAST WITH “each other”

A contrast that is often made is between plural -self words in the object position and each other/one another. Here is a sentence where one of the latter is necessary:

(d) In the market place, firms must compete against one another.

This means firm A competes with firm B and firm C, and possibly others too (if there was competition with only one other firm, each other would be preferred). What is not possible here is themselves, since that would mean firm A competed with firm A, firm B with firm B, and so on – an illogicality.

In some languages, the equivalent of themselves is possible here: it has the two meanings that English gives to two different expressions, and the reader obtains the right meaning because of the very illogicality of the unintended one. Note that in this particular example English could also say … compete among themselves.

The -selves/each other contrast is more typically illustrated in English coursebooks by sentences allowing either one, depending on the meaning, like this:

(e) Large apes often groom (1) themselves (2) each other.

The first meaning here is that each ape grooms itself, the second that each ape both grooms and is groomed by another ape.



The normal usage of -self words in the object position, as illustrated in (a) above, is not universal. One kind of exception is found with a small number of object-requiring verbs which use -self words to express an idiomatic meaning, like this:

(f) In the task, learners help themselves to a card.

The underlined words here mean “take without asking”. They thus adapt the normal meaning of help, which is “give assistance”. In the same way, the meanings of enjoy themselves (= “have a good time”), behave themselves (= “avoid bad behaviour”) and express themselves (= “communicate personal feelings”) are not immediately obvious. For more on ENJOY and BEHAVE, see respectively 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3, #9.

Another exceptional usage is with verbs like BATHE, which normally drop object -self words, like this:

(g) Hindus bathe … in the River Ganges for religious reasons.

Mainstream grammar descriptions tend to illustrate verbs like this with examples from ordinary, everyday English – such as DRESS, FEED, RELAX, SHAVE, SIT and WASH (but not CLEAN, which needs a -self word) – rather than from professional writing, thus implying that professional writing rarely uses this verb type. However, there are a few such verbs which are relatively common in professional writing, such as IMPROVE, MOVE, PREPARE and STOP, e.g.:

(h) The agreement allows people to move … freely across borders.

Verbs of this kind tend to belong to the wider group that is considered in the post 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive.

The point about object-dropping verbs like BATHE and MOVE is that they can also be used with a -self word as object, but only in order to express a special meaning. In many cases this is “with new (or surprising) independence”, as in:

(i) Small children quickly learn to wash themselves.

The washing here is suggested to have until recently been done by other people.

Another common meaning that -self words can add to a verb normally used without one is “with determined effort”. Thus, stopped oneself falling implies taking action to stop, whereas stopped falling means stopping without trying; and improve oneself means not just getting better, but working very hard to do so. CHANGE, DECREASE, DEVELOP, EXPAND, INCREASE, MOVE and PREPARE can all act similarly with a -self word. With TRAIN, however, different meanings again exist: training is preparation for sporting or professional activity, whereas training oneself relates to habits.



1. Showing “Emphasis”

The other main use of -self words according to most grammar descriptions is to give “emphasis” to a particular noun or noun-equivalent, like this:

(j) Students themselves should * choose * what to study *.

The -self word usually follows the noun it “emphasizes” (here students). It can always go directly after this noun and, if the noun is a sentence subject, it can also go in later positions, marked * in (j).

A problem I have with the word “emphasizes” is that it is vague, since there seem to be different types of emphasis and these need to be specified. The type in (j) appears to be independence-expressing: the message is that students should not let other people – parents or tutors for example – act for them. The idea of independence – in the form of automaticity – may also be present in this non-human example:

(k) The application will download updates itself.

Another type of “emphasis” highlights the oppositeness of a noun to one mentioned just before, like this (opposites underlined):

(l) Parents fear for their children on busy roads. The children themselves cope admirably.

This use of a -self word is Standard English, preferred to beginning with for and a noun/pronoun equivalent of the subject (For the children, they… above). For details, see 125. Stress and Emphasis.

Sentence (l) can also have the contrast connector on the other hand (see 20. Problem Connectors). However, not all uses of this connector indicate the possibility of a contrastive -self word. There seems to be a need for the contrasted noun to represent something familiar to the addressee. In (l) children is a familiar idea because of its presence in the sentence before (see 156. Mentioning what the Reader Knows Already). In the following, it is not a familiar idea, and no -self word is possible:

(m) Parents fear busy roads. Children, on the other hand, cope admirably.

Contrastive -self words are also possible where on the other hand is not:

(n) Most people dislike insects. I myself try to avoid them.

Here the -self word indicates a contrast between I and most people, but the points made about each of these are similar, not opposite. The most suitable connector would be a similarity-showing one like similarly or also.

In a third sort of “emphasis”, the idea of “even” is expressed. The partner noun must thus be an extreme possibility:

(o) Pele himself would not have scored that.

(p) Freezing temperatures occur in the Sahara itself.

In (o), Pele himself means “even Pele” (the best goal-scorer ever), indicating that nobody could score the goal in question because he could not. In (p), itself tells us freezing temperatures occur in all deserts because they occur in the Sahara , the hottest.


2. Indicating “Alone”

This meaning is achieved by placing a -self word after by. At first sight, it just seems an alternative to the independence-expressing use, since by can easily be added to (j) and (k) above. However, I believe that by does make a subtle difference, introducing the idea of solitariness or isolation alongside that of independence.


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