English Reflexive Verbs and Pronouns: A Self-study Guide
Do you like to do things yourself?
Maybe you grow your own vegetables, cut your own hair and do your own repairs.
Maybe you are self-studying English, or learning English by yourself. But whether you’ve gotten this far on your own or with the help of a teacher, you should be proud of yourself.
Are you noticing anything strange about this post so far?
That’s right: We keep using the word yourself. Why are we saying yourself and not just you?
Because yourself is a reflexive pronoun.
A reflexive pronoun can be used in a few different ways, including in reflexive verbs. But what the heck does all of that mean?
Hang on, don’t close that internet window just yet.
Luckily, reflexive verbs, or verbs that use reflexive pronouns, are actually really simple in English!
This is great, because understanding how they work will help you sound more like a native speaker.
By the end of this post, you will be able to congratulate yourself on your knowledge of English reflexive verbs and pronouns.
The Do-it-yourself Guide to English Reflexive Verbs
So, What Are Reflexive Verbs?
As we noted earlier, reflexive verbs are verbs that use reflexive pronouns.
Let’s look at an example to start.
Lisa is teaching English.
Here, we don’t know who Lisa is teaching English to.
Lisa is teaching the students English.
Now we have more information. We know that the students are who Lisa is teaching.
Now let’s imagine that we want to say Lisa is the one who’s teaching, but Lisa is also the one being taught. Maybe Lisa is learning English on her own, for example.
In order to say this, you need a reflexive pronoun. But why? Why can’t you just use Lisa again?
Lisa is teaching Lisa English.
That sounds funny, right? It’s also not completely clear. In this sentence, there could be two different people who are both named Lisa. One person named Lisa could be teaching someone else whose name’s also Lisa. So we need a different word that lets us say exactly what’s happening. That word is the reflexive pronoun herself.
Lisa is teaching herself English.
So if Lisa is the one doing the teaching and the learning, Lisa is teaching herself.
Teaching is the reflexive verb in this case, and herself is the reflexive pronoun.
If you’re learning about English reflexive verbs right now without a teacher, you are teaching yourself. Herself and yourself are both reflexive pronouns.
As you can see, the reflexive verbs in English are created by adding a reflexive pronoun to them. So, it’s really important to know about these reflexive pronouns.
Before we go any further, let’s look at what other reflexive pronouns you’ll come across.
All the Reflexive Pronouns You Need to Know
Reflexive verbs use different reflexive pronouns depending on who or what’s the subject, or the person or thing performing an action, in a sentence.
In the sentence “She is teaching herself,” herself is the reflexive pronoun.
Here are all of the reflexive pronouns that you could use with this verb, and how you could use them:
- I am teaching myself.
- You are teaching yourself.
- Lisa is teaching herself. / She is teaching herself.
- Frank is teaching himself. / He is teaching himself.
- We are teaching ourselves.
- You are teaching yourselves.
- They are teaching themselves.
Oneself is another reflexive pronoun that can be used with the subject one, but in modern English, one and oneself aren’t used very often in conversation. We usually only use them when we’re talking or writing about something in a very general way, sometimes for educational purposes.
For example, if you’re learning housekeeping vocabulary, you might find a dictionary or online definition that says “toilet paper is used to clean oneself after going to the bathroom.”
However, it’d probably sound strange if you said out loud in conversation that “one is teaching oneself.”
If you know someone is teaching themselves, but don’t know who that person is, you might say:
- Someone is teaching herself.
- Someone is teaching himself.
- Someone is teaching themself/themselves.
This last one might sound funny whether you use themself or themselves, and some people will tell you that they’re both incorrect. However, it’s common to refer to a person who’s not specified as being male or female with “they.” When this happens, you may sometimes see that the reflexive pronoun used is themself rather than themselves.
In your own writing and speaking, just be aware that themselves is still more widely accepted.
Someone is teaching themselves. They are teaching themselves.
Another reflexive pronoun that isn’t listed above is itself. Itself is normally used for a thing (or sometimes an animal) rather than a person. So unlike with the above pronouns, you probably wouldn’t say that something is teaching itself.
One common example of how this pronoun is used in a reflexive verb is the expression “it sells itself” (or sometimes “it practically sells itself”). This is an expression that means that a certain product, like a new piece of technology, is selling very well. In other words, this product is so popular and desirable that it almost seems like no actual selling or advertising is required.
Here’s an example of how you might hear this expression being used:
Everyone wants these new phones! They’re practically selling themselves!
List of Common Verbs That Are Used with Reflexive Pronouns
Here are some of the most common verbs in English that you’ll see with reflexive pronouns.
- To introduce. At this point in your English language journey, you’re probably familiar with this verb. To introduce yourself means to tell someone your name when you’re meeting for the very first time.
I will introduce myself to everyone at the party.
- To convince. If I say “We convinced ourselves to try sushi,” it could mean that we ate this delicious meal after discussing whether or not we thought it’d be a good idea. It also might mean that we were a little nervous about trying sushi for the first time, but we decided to try it anyway.
I didn’t want to apologize for singing loudly and annoying everyone, but I convinced myself it was the right thing to do.
- To hurt. If I say “I hurt myself when I fell,” it means that I became injured when I fell. You can injure yourself or hurt yourself without having done it on purpose! There are other reflexive verbs having to do with being harmed. A person can cut themselves or kill themselves (this last one’s usually understood to be done on purpose, and is the same as “commit suicide”).
When I tried to stand on my chair, I lost my balance and injured myself.
- To drive. If I say “You drove yourself to the party,” it would mean that you got into a car and used it to get to the party.
Because I was hurt, my friends wouldn’t let me drive myself home.
There are also some verbs that change their meaning slightly when a reflexive pronoun is added.
- To enjoy. This is where it gets a little confusing. To say that you are enjoying yourself doesn’t mean that you are what you’re enjoying. To enjoy yourself simply means to have a good time.
I enjoyed myself at the party, but some of the other guests didn’t enjoy themselves as much.
- To help. To help yourself can mean exactly what it sounds like. For example, someone might say “I can’t help you if you won’t even help yourself.” But to help yourself can also mean to take or serve yourself food or drinks. Someone who’s hosting a party or has invited you over to their home as a guest might tell you to help yourself to refreshments (food or drinks).
I helped myself to too much sushi, so there wasn’t enough left for everyone else.
- To behave. Parents often yell “Behave yourself!” if their children are doing anything bad, such as making too much noise, getting their clothes dirty or climbing trees. They might also simply yell “Behave!” “Behave” by itself can either mean act properly and acceptably, or just act in a specific way. For example, you can “behave badly.” If you behave yourself, though, that always means that you behave well.
If I am ever invited to another party, I will try to behave myself.
These are only a few of the most common reflexive verbs. You’ll find many others during your English learning journey.
Other Ways Reflexive Pronouns Can Be Used
Besides being used in reflexive verbs, reflexive pronouns can also be used in sentences in a couple of other ways.
You can use a reflexive pronoun with a preposition to give more information in a sentence about what’s happening.
Let’s take a look at this sentence:
I went home to be alone.
Another way that we could say alone here is by myself.
I went home to be by myself.
This might seem strange, because if you think about it, you’re always by, or near, yourself. However, as we saw in the examples above, reflexive pronouns are used in their own special way in some common phrases and expressions. The most important thing to understand here is that the pronoun myself is being used to refer back to the subject, I.
Here’s another common way a reflexive pronoun can be used with a preposition:
She bought a dress for herself.
In this sentence, herself is who she bought the dress for. Like with Lisa teaching English to herself, you need the word herself to be clear.
If you said “She bought the dress for her,” it’d sound like she bought the dress for some other person.
Reflexive pronouns can also be used to emphasize (stress, or give attention to) information in a phrase.
Consider this example:
I want to do it myself.
The person speaking this sentence could simply say “I want to do it,” and have it mean almost the same thing. However, the word myself emphasizes the word I, showing that the speaker wishes to draw attention to this word.
You might see this usage of a reflexive pronoun in this kind of exchange:
“It seems like you could use some help with the laundry. Would you like me to fold these shirts?”
“No, please don’t, I want to do it myself.”
Here’s another example:
They wanted to feed the dogs themselves.
In this sentence, it sounds like they might not have trusted someone else to feed the dogs.
It’d be fine to just say, “They wanted to feed the dogs.” However, themselves makes it seem more important that they be the one(s) to feed the dogs. It makes it seem like it’s important that they personally feed the dogs, and not just that the dogs are fed.
When You Don’t Need to Use Reflexive Pronouns
Unless you want to emphasize an action, you don’t need to use reflexive pronouns in cases where a person usually does something to or for themselves.
For example, instead of saying David shaved himself after his shower, you can just say David shaved after his shower.
Instead of saying Paulina dressed herself for dinner, you can just say Paulina dressed for dinner.
Resources for Practice
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already learned a lot about reflexive verbs and pronouns! However, here are some resources you can use to get even more familiar with them:
- This reflexive pronouns quiz from Englisch-Hilfen lets you practice using reflexive pronouns in sentences with a fill-in-the-blank challenge.
- This quiz from My English Pages first has you identify all the reflexive pronouns, and then has you choose the right ones to go in sentences.
- This quiz on English2Test covers a lot of different usages of reflexive pronouns.
These resources will help you start seeing how reflexive pronouns are actually used. The examples in this post and the above quizzes don’t cover all the possible usages of reflexive pronouns and verbs in English. However, now that you’ve learned all the reflexive pronouns, you’ll more easily be able to notice all the different ways they’re commonly used.
Keep watching out for them while you’re reading in English, watching English-language movies and having English conversations.
The more you practice English reflexive verbs and pronouns, the more easily you’ll be able to use them.
So keep teaching yourself!