Reflexive pronoun

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In language, a reflexive pronoun, sometimes simply called a reflexive, is a pronoun that is preceded or followed by the noun, adjective, adverb or pronoun to which it refers (its antecedent) within the same clause.

In the English language specifically, a reflexive pronoun will end in ‑self or ‑selves, and refer to a previously named noun or pronoun (myself, yourself, ourselves, etc.). Intensive pronouns, used for emphasis, take the same form.

In generative grammar, a reflexive pronoun is an anaphor that must be bound by its antecedent (see binding). In a general sense, it is a noun phrase that obligatorily gets its meaning from another noun phrase in the sentence.[1] Different languages have different binding domains for reflexive pronouns, according to their structure.

Origins and usage[edit]

In Indo-European languages, the reflexive pronoun does not refer to root verbs unless 2 verbs are right next to each other, or separated by a comma Proto-Indo-European. In some languages, the distinction between the normal object and reflexive pronouns exists mainly in the third person: whether one says "I like me" or "I like myself", there is no question that the object is the same person as the subject; but, in "They like them(selves)", there can be uncertainty about the identity of the object unless a distinction exists between the reflexive and the nonreflexive. In some languages, this distinction includes genitive forms: see, for instance, the Danish examples below. In languages with a distinct reflexive pronoun form, it is often gender-neutral.

A reflexive pronoun is normally used when the object of a sentence is the same as the subject. Each personal pronoun (such as I, you, he and she) has its own reflexive form:

  • I — myself
  • you — yourself/yourselves
  • he — himself
  • she — herself
  • one — oneself
  • it — itself
  • we — ourselves
  • they — themselves

These pronouns can also be used intensively, to emphasize the identity of whoever or whatever is being talked about:

  • Jim bought himself a book (reflexive)
  • Jim himself bought a book (intensive)

Intensive pronouns usually appear near and or before the subject of the sentence.

Non-reflexive usage in English[edit]

Some speakers use reflexive pronouns without local linguistic antecedents to refer to discourse participants or people already referenced in a discourse: for example, "Please, forward the information to myself, Anything else for yourself today?" Such formulations are usually considered non-standard and incorrect. These can often be found in writing where the author has tried to formulate a more professional-looking text without a true understanding of the language he is using. Within the linguistics literature, reflexives with discourse antecedents are often referred to as logophors. Standard English does allow the use of logophors in some contexts: for example, "John was angry. Embarrassing pictures of himself were on display." However, within Standard English, this logophoric use of reflexives is generally limited to positions where the reflexive does not have a coargument.[2] The newer non-standard usage does not respect this limitation. In some cases, reflexives without local antecedents may be better analyzed as emphatic pronouns without any true reflexive sense.

It is common in some dialects of English to use standard object pronouns to express reflexive relations, especially in the first and sometimes second persons, and especially for a recipient: for example, "I want to get me some supper." While this was seemingly standard in Old English through the Early Modern Period (with "self" constructs primarily used for emphatic purposes), it is held to be dialectal or nonstandard in Modern English.[3][4]

In languages other than English[edit]


In Mandarin Chinese, the reflexive pronoun is zìjǐ (自己), meaning "self".[5] The antecedent it refers to can be inferred by context, which is generally the subject of the sentence:

  • bǎohù zìjǐ. (保护自己。) (I protect myself.)
  • bǎohù zìjǐ. (保护自己。) (He protects himself.)
  • gěi tā zìjǐ de shū. (给他自己的书。) (I gave him my own book.)
  • gěi wǒ zìjǐ de shū. (给我自己的书。) (He gave me his own book.)

The antecedent can be reiterated before the reflexive pronoun; this can be used to refer to an antecedent that's not the subject:

  • Wǒ gěi tā wǒ zìjǐ de shū. (我给他我自己的书。) (I gave him my own book.)
  • Wǒ gěi tā tā zìjǐ de shū. (我给他他自己的书。) (I gave him his own book.)

Like English, the reflexive can also be used to emphasize the antecedent:[5]

  • Wáng xiānshēng zìjǐ zuò le. (王先生自己做了。) (Mr. Wang did it himself .)

The reflexive can also be the subject of an embedded clause.

  • juédé zìjǐ hěn cōngmíng. (觉得自己很聪明。) (He considers himself very clever. He feels that he is very clever.)

Also unlike English, the reflexive can refer to antecedents outside of the embedded clause. Because of this, it may be ambiguous whether the antecedent refers to the subject of the main clause or the embedded clause, in which case it may be necessary to reiterate the antecedent:

  • Wǒ juédé Wáng xiānshēng bù xǐhuān zìjǐ. (我觉得王先生不喜欢自己。) (I feel that Mr. Wang doesn't like (him)self.)
  • Wǒ juédé Wáng xiānshēng bù xǐhuān wǒ zìjǐ. (我觉得王先生不喜欢我自己。) (I feel that Mr. Wang doesn't like me.)
  • Wǒ juédé Wáng xiānshēng bù xǐhuān tā zìjǐ. (我觉得王先生不喜欢他自己。) (I feel that Mr. Wang doesn't like himself.)

The reflexive pronoun in Cantonese Chinese, jihgéi, cognate to Mandarin zìjǐ (and thus also written as 自己), also follows the same rules.[6] This was also the case in Classical Chinese, which simply used 己[7] (Old Chinese: *kəʔ[8]).


Danish uses the separate reflexive pronoun sig for third person pronouns, and 'selv' to mark intensive.

  • Jeg beskytter mig (selv). (I protect myself)
  • Jeg beskytter ham (selv). (I protect him (myself))
  • Han beskytter ham. (He protects him. Him designates a person other than the one designated by He.)
  • Han beskytter sig (selv). (He protects himself.)

In Danish, there is also a difference between normal and reflexive genitives, the latter being used only in the singular:

  • Anna gav Maria hendes bog. (Anna gave Maria her [Maria's, or possibly some unknown third person's] book.)
  • Anna gav Maria sin bog. (Anna gave Maria her [Anna's] book.)

In the latter case, sin is a case of a reflexive possessive pronoun, i.e. it reflects that the subject in the phrase (Anna) owns the object (the book).


The Esperanto third-person reflexive pronoun is si, or sia for the possessive (to which can be added -j for plural agreement and -n for direct object).

  • Li legas liajn librojn. (He reads his (someone else's) books.)
  • Li legas siajn librojn. (He reads his (own) books.)
  • Ŝi legas siajn librojn. (She reads her (own) books.)
  • Ili legas siajn librojn. (They read their (own) books.)
  • Li amas lin. (He loves him (someone else).)
  • Li amas sin. (He loves himself.)
  • Li rimarkis ŝian amon al si. (He noticed her love for herself (reflexive).)
  • Li rimarkis ŝian amon al li. (He noticed her love for him (using a normal pronoun).)
  • Li rimarkis sian amon al si. (He noticed his (own, reflexive) love for himself (reflexive).)
  • Li rimarkis sian amon al li. (He noticed his (own, reflexive) love for him (someone else, not reflexive).)
  • Li diras, ke la hundo lavas sian vizaĝon. (He says that the dog is washing its (the dog's) face.)
  • Li diras, ke la hundo lavas lian vizaĝon. (He says that the dog is washing his (the speaker's or someone else's, but not the dog's) face.)


In French, the main reflexive pronoun is 'se', with its indefinite form soi.

There are also intensifying reflexive pronouns, such as moi-même, toi-même, lui-même/elle-même/soi-même, nous-mêmes, vous-mêmes and eux-mêmes/elles-mêmes, similar in meaning (but not often used) to myself, yourself, etc.

French also uses reflexive verbs to express actions that somebody is doing to themselves. Many of these are related to daily routine. For example,

  • Je me lave (I get washed, lit "I wash myself")
  • Tu te laves (You get washed, lit "You wash yourself")
  • Il/elle/on se lave (He/she/one gets washed, lit "He/she/one washes her/him/oneself")
  • Nous nous lavons (We get washed, lit "We wash ourselves")
  • Vous vous lavez (You get washed, lit "You wash yourselves")
  • Ils/elles se lavent (They get washed, lit "They wash themselves")


In German, the reflexive case is not distinguishable from the accusative and dative cases except in the third person reflexive.[9] As discussed above, the reflexive case is most useful when handling third person because it is not always clear that pronouns refer to the same person, whereas in the first and second persons, it is clear: he hit him and he hit himself have different meanings, but I hit me and I hit myself mean the same thing although the former is nonstandard English.

Because the accusative and dative cases are different, the speaker must know whether the verb is reflexive accusative or reflexive dative. There are very few reflexive dative verbs, which must be memorised to ensure that the correct grammar is used. The most notable one is (sich) weh tun (to hurt oneself): Ich tue mir weh. (I hurt myself.) See also German pronouns.


  • Beszélek magamról. (I talk about myself.)
  • Beszélsz magadról. (You talk about yourself.)
  • Beszél magáról. (He talks about himself. But also: She talks about herself. It talks about itself. And formal version of you: You talk about yourself.)
  • Beszélünk magunkról. (We talk about ourselves.)
  • Beszéltek magatokról. (You talk about yourselves.)
  • Beszélnek magukról. (They talk about themselves.)


There is only one reflexive pronoun in Icelandic and that is the word sig. It does not differ between genders nor number.

The reflexive pronouns are as such:

Singular and plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative (hann/hún/það/þeir/þær/þau) ("he/she/it/they")
Accusative sig
Dative sér
Genitive sín


The reflexive pronoun refers to the third person:

  • Hann talar um sig.(masc. sing.) (He talks about himself)
  • Þeir tala um sig. (masc. plur.) (They talk about themselves)
  • Stúlkan flýtti sér heim. (fem. sing.) (the girl hurried [herself] home)
  • Þær flýttu sér heim. (neut. plur.) (they [the girls] hurried [themselves] home)
  • Barnið naut sín. (neut. sing.) (the child enjoyed itself)
  • Börnin nutu sín. (neut. plur.) (the children enjoyed themselves)


The reflexive pronouns in Italian are:

  • mi (first person singular)
  • ti (second person singular)
  • si (third person singular)
  • ci (first person plural)
  • vi (second person plural)
  • si (third person plural)

Reflexive pronouns are usually employed when the direct object in a sentence is also its subject, thus reflecting the action as expressed in the verb on the subject itself.

This pronoun allows the building of three kinds of reflexive verbal forms: proper, non-proper (or ostensible), and reciprocal.

  • Io mi lavo, or io lavo me (I wash myself): reflexive proper, because the subject is at the same time the object of the sentence.
  • Lui si lava i capelli (He washes his hair): reflexive non-proper, as he does not wash himself but his hair, the real object of the action.
  • Noi due ci sposiamo oggi (the two of us get [are getting] married [to each other] today): reflexive reciprocal, since the action is performed by the two subjects reciprocally.

Notice that the sentence I wash myself could also be translated in Italian as "io lavo me stesso", that stresses the reflexiveness way more than English.

The complete list of intensifying reflexive pronouns is:

  • me stesso (first person masculine singular)
  • me stessa (first person feminine singular)
  • te stesso (second person masculine singular)
  • te stessa (second person feminine singular)
  • se stesso (third person masculine singular)
  • se stessa (third person feminine singular)
  • noi stessi (first person masculine plural)
  • noi stesse (first person feminine plural)
  • voi stessi (second person masculine plural)
  • voi stesse (second person feminine plural)
  • se stessi (third person masculine plural)
  • se stesse (third person feminine plural)


In the Japanese language, jibun 自分 and jibunjishin 自分自身 are reflexive pronouns that correspond roughly to 'herself' and 'himself'. They differ from English in some ways; for example, jibun and jibunjishin do not have to agree in gender or number where English reflexives do. Jibun can further be bound locally or long distance where English reflexives must always occur locally. Although both English and Japanese pronouns must be c-commanded by their antecedents, because of the syntactic structure of Japanese, long distance binding is allowed.


In Korean, jagi 자기(自己) and jasin 자신(自身) are used as reflexive pronouns that refer to 'myself', 'himself', 'herself', and 'ourselves'. Jagijasin 자기자신(自己自身) is also a reflexive pronoun but it usually corresponds only to the first person (myself).


In the 1st and 2nd person, Latin uses the ordinary oblique forms of the personal pronouns as reflexive pronouns. In the 3rd person, Latin uses the special reflexive pronoun se, which is the same for all genders and numbers, and declined in all cases except the nominative and the vocative.

Singular or Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Accusative , sēsē
Genitive suī
Dative sibi
Ablative , sēsē
Locative , sēsē



Accusative Dative
Full Short Full Short
себе се себе си

An alternative full form, себеси, is used for emphasis.

  • Ана ѝ ја даде нејзината книга на Марија. (Ana gave her [Maria's] book to Maria.)
  • Ана ѝ ја даде својата книга на Марија. (Ana gave her [Ana's] book to Maria.)


(Novial is a constructed language, mostly based on Romance languages.)

  • Lo vida lo. (He sees him.)
  • Lo vida se. (He sees himself.)
  • Anna donad lan libre a Maria. (Anna gave her [Maria's] book to Maria.)
  • Anna donad sen libre a Maria. (Anna gave her [Anna's] book to Maria.)



Genitive siebie
Dative sobie
Accusative się, siebie
Instrumental sobą
Locative sobie

In Polish the oblique reflexive pronouns is się and it declines as above. It is used with 1st, 2nd and 3rd person:

  • Myję się "I wash myself"
  • Myjesz się "You wash yourself"
  • Piotr się myje "Peter washes himself"

It has been grammaticalized to a high degree, becoming also a marker of medial and/or anticausative voice:

  • Drzwi się otworzyły "Door opened", lit. "Door opened itself"
  • Przewróciliśmy się "We fell", lit. "We turned ourselves over"

Similarly, the dative sobie gained an additional, volitional/liberative meaning, usually used in informal speech:

  • Idę sobie ulicą, patrzę sobie, a tam leży sobie dziesięć złoty. "So, I'm casually walking down the street and suddenly I see 10 zloty just lying there.", lit. "I'm walking for myself, I'm looking for myself, and there lies for itself 10 zloty"
  • Jestem sobie przedszkolaczek... "I'm a kindergartner" (from children's song)

Moreover, the phrase iść sobie has been lexicalized and means "to leave" (cf. French s'en aller):

  • Nudna ta impreza, idę sobie. "This party's boring, I'm leaving"


Polish also has a possessive reflexive pronoun swój (swoja, swoje). It assumes the gender of the possessed object, not that of the possessor.

  • Zabrał swoje rzeczy i wyszedł. "He took his (own) things and went out."
  • Spojrzał na swój telefon. "He looked at his (own) phone."
  • Anna oddała Kasi swoją książkę. "Anna gave her (Anna's) book to Cathy."

Not using a reflexive pronoun might indicate the other party's possession of the object:

  • Anna oddała Kasi jej ksiażkę "Anna returned Cathy's book"


The intensive meaning is done by the pronoun sam (inflecting for case, gender and number):

Nominative sam m samo n sama f sami v pl same nv pl
Genitive samego samej samych
Dative samemu samej samym
Accusative samego, sam samo samą samych same
Instrumental samym samą samymi
Locative samym samej samych

Usually inflected się is added in obliques:

  • Słucham siebie samej (fem.) "I listen to myself"
  • Wierzę sobie samej (fem.) "I believe myself"

Emphatically the accusative can be replaced with dative:

  • Zrobiłem to sam (masc.) "I did it myself", "I did it alone"
  • Zrobiłem to samemu (masc.) "I did it myself", "I did it personally"


  • Quando ele o vê. (When he sees him.)
  • Quando ele se vê. (When he sees himself.)

There are two ways to make a reflexive sentence in Portuguese. The first way is by attaching the reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nos - also vos) to the verb. The second way is by also attaching the words "mesmo/a(s)" or "próprio/a(s)", masc/fem. (plural) (="self"), immediately after the verb to add stress/intensity :

  • Eu me machuquei. / Machuquei-me. (I hurt myself.)
  • Eu machuquei a mim [mesmo/mesma/próprio/própria]. (I hurt myself.)
  • Tu sempre te machucas . (You always hurt yourself.)
  • Tu sempre machucas a ti [mesmo/mesma/próprio/própria]. (You always hurt yourself)
  • Ele se machucou ontem. (He hurt himself yesterday.)
  • Ela se machucou ontem. (She hurt herself yesterday.)
  • Ele machucou a si [mesmo/próprio]. (He hurt himself.)
  • Ela machucou a si [mesma/própria]. (She hurt herself.)
  • Nós nos machucamos. / Machucamo-nos. (We hurt ourselves.)
  • Nós machucamos a nós [mesmos/mesmas/próprios/próprias]. (We hurt ourselves)
  • Eles se machucam todos os dias. (They [masc] hurt themselves every day.)
  • Elas se machucam todos os dias. (They [fem] hurt themselves every day.)
  • Eles machucam a si [mesmos/próprios] todos os dias. (They [masc] hurt themselves every day.)
  • Elas machucam a si [mesmas/próprias] todos os dias. (They [fem] hurt themselves every day.)
  • Vós nunca vos machucais. [archaic] (You never hurt yourselves.)
  • Vocês nunca se machucam. (You never hurt yourselves.)


  • sieşi, sie, îşi, şi- Dative: himself, herself
  • pe sine, se, s- Accusative: himself, herself


The pronoun себя sebya universally means "oneself"/"myself"/"himself", etc. It is inflected depending on the case.

When used to indicate that the person is the direct object of the verb, one uses the accusative form, sebya. (It does not have a nominative form.)

  • Он поранил себя. On poranil sebya. ("He has wounded himself.")

Emphasized forms are "sam sebya" - masculine, "sama sebya" - feminine, "sami sebya" - plural.

  • Он поранил сам себя. On poranil sam sebya. ("He has wounded himself." Literally: "He himself has wounded himself.")

This sentence indicates that the subject inflicted the wounds while in the previous example, "sebya" merely indicates that the subject was wounded.

In addition, the reflexive pronoun sebya gave rise the reflexive affix -sya (-ся) used to generate reflexive verbs:

  • Он поранился (He has wounded himself.)

There are certain stylistic differences between the three usages, despite being rendered in the same way in English.

When the person is not a direct object of the verb, other cases are used:

  • Он принес с собой бутылку водки. On prines s soboi butylku vodki. ("He brought a bottle of vodka with himself.") - instrumental case
  • Он уронил сумку себе на ногу. On uronil sumku sebe na nogu. ("He dropped a bag on his (own) foot." Literally: "He dropped a bag to himself on the foot.") - dative case


  • Он уронил сумку ему на ногу. On uronil sumku emu na nogu. ("He dropped a bag on his (someone else's) foot.")

Russian has a reflexive possessive as well.

  • Он любит свою жену. On lyubit svoyu zhenu. (He loves his wife (his own). - Reflexive possessive)
  • Он любит его жену. On lyubit yego zhenu (He loves his wife (someone else's). - It is ambiguous in English, but less so in Russian.)

Because of the existence of reflexive forms, the use of a non-reflexive pronoun indicates a subject that is different from the object. If it is impossible, the sentence is invalid or at least irregular:

  • Он поранил его. On poranil ego. ("He has wounded him (someone else).")
  • Ты видишь себя в зеркале. Ty vidish sebya v zerkale ("You see yourself in the mirror") - proper
  • Tы видишь тебя в зеркале. Ty vidish tebya v zerkale ("You see you in the mirror") - invalid
  • Ты любишь свою жену? Ty lyubish svoyu zhenu? ("Do you love your (own) wife?") - proper
  • Ты любишь твою жену? Ty lyubish tvoyu zhenu? ("Do you love your wife?") - irregular


Serbo-Croatian uses the reflexive pronoun sebe/se, which is the same for all persons, numbers and genders, and declined as follows:[10]

Genitive sebe
Dative sebi/si
Accusative sebe/se
Instrumental sobom
Locative sebi
  • Ana je dala Mariji njenu knjigu. ("Ana gave her [Maria's] book to Maria.")
  • Ana je dala Mariji svoju knjigu. ("Ana gave her [Ana's] book to Maria.")

The words that modify the reflexive pronoun do show gender and number:[10]

  • Čudio se samom sebi. "He wondered at himself."
  • Čudila se samoj sebi. "She wondered at herself."
  • Čudilo se samom sebi. "It wondered at himself/herself." (neuter singular)
  • Čudili se samima sebi. "They wondered at themselves." (masculine plural, neuter plural, or for a mixed group)
  • Čudile se samima sebi. "They wondered at themselves." (feminine plural)

The enclitic form of the reflexive pronoun, se, has been grammaticalized to a high degree:[10]

  • Vrata su se otvorila. lit. "Door opened itself" ("Door opened")
  • Prevrnuli smo se. lit. "We turned ourselves over" ("We fell")


In Spanish, the reflexive pronouns are: me/nos (first person singular/plural), te/os (second person) or se (third person). In Latin America, "os" is not used, being replaced by "se" for the pronoun "ustedes". For clarity, there are optional intensifying adjuncts for reflexive pronouns, accompanied by "mismo/a" (masculine and feminine forms for "self"). They are not strictly adjuncts: "sí mismo/a" (instead of "se"), "ti mismo/a" (in the Río de la Plata region, it is replaced by "vos mismo/a") but "mi mismo": they usually postpend the genitive.

Examples with "wash oneself":

  • yo me lavo (I wash myself.)
  • nosotros nos lavamos (We wash ourselves.)
  • te lavas (You wash yourself.)
  • vos te lavás (You wash yourself, Rioplatense Spanish)
  • usted ("Ud.") se lava (You wash yourself. [Formal])
  • ustedes ("Uds.") se lavan (You wash yourselves. [Formal, plural])
  • vosotros os laváis (in Spain)
  • él se lava (He washes himself.)
  • ella se lava (She washes herself.)
  • ellos se lavan (They wash themselves. [Masculine])
  • ellas se lavan (They wash themselves. [Feminine])

Note that the indirect object "le"/"les" do not override "se" in the reflexive.


  • Ana je dala Mariji njeno knjigo. (Ana gave her [Maria's] book to Maria.)
  • Ana je dala Mariji svojo knjigo. (Ana gave her [Ana's] book to Maria.)


In Vietnamese, the reflexive pronoun is mình whose meaning can be myself, herself, himself, themselves etc. depending on the number/gender of its antecedent.

  • John đánh mình (John hit himself.)


  1. ^ Carnie, Andrew (2013). Syntax: A Generative Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. ^ Pollard, Carl & Ivan Sag (1992). "Anaphors in English and the Scope of the Binding Theory". Linguistic Inquiry (23): 261–303.
  3. ^ Old English#Charter of Cnut
  4. ^ "Grammar in early modern English - Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  5. ^ a b Yip, Po-Ching; Rimmington, Don (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge. pp. 56–7. ISBN 0-415-15032-9.
  6. ^ Matthews, Stephen; Yip, Virginia (1994). Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge. pp. 84–7. ISBN 0-415-08945-X.
  7. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1995). Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. UBC Press. p. 83. ISBN 0-7748-0541-2.
  8. ^ Schuessler, Axel (2007). "jǐ2 己". ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2975-9.
  9. ^ Archived November 17, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b c Kordić, Snježana (2006) [1st pub. 1997]. Serbo-Croatian. Languages of the World/Materials ; 148. Munich & Newcastle: Lincom Europa. p. 23. ISBN 3-89586-161-8. OCLC 37959860. OL 2863538W. Contents. Summary. [Grammar book].