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, the English equivalent of an inscription on an important temple in Ancient Greece. The point about imperative verbs is that they normally lack an explicit subject. The fact that the -self word after one has to be yourself or yourselves shows that the “understood” subject is you. More about imperative verbs is in the post 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 “freely pick up”. They are thus not the normal -self word equivalent of help (someone), which means “give assistance”. In the same way, enjoy themselves (= “have a good time”) and express themselves (= “construct a message”) are not the normal -self word equivalents of enjoy/express (something). For more on ENJOY, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors.

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, stop oneself is often used instead of stop before falling because falling is very hard to stop, 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.

BEHAVE is also usable with and without a -self word, but it cannot have any other object. Used alone, it means “act”, and with a -self word “avoid bad behaviour” (see 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3).



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 the highlighted noun to one indicated just before, like this (opposites underlined):

(l) Most people dislike insects. I myself find them fascinating.

Some varieties of English would here prefer for me before I (more generally for + personal pronoun before a subject noun), but a -self word seems more natural in Standard English (see 125. Stress and Emphasis).

When the -self word is in a new sentence like this, it seems an alternative to the connector on the other hand (see 20. Problem Connectors), and hence to be classifiable as a Connector Synonym. However, there is no such equivalence if the two contrasted nouns are in the same sentence, or if the second one is in a sentence about a similarity, like this:

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

Here the -self word is still marking a contrast, but the most suitable connector is a similarity-showing one like similarly or also.

On the other hand does not seem usable in the following example either:

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

I would suggest that a -self word is suitable here because the second of the two contrasted nouns (children) is “familiar” or “old” information – here already mentioned in the previous statement.

A third kind of “emphasis” is achieved by placing a -self word after by. At first sight, this 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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