Thursday, February 9, 2017

ENGL 3663: Reflexive, Reciprocal, and Indefinite Pronouns

Reflexive Pronouns

The reflexive pronouns are words like myself, himself, herself, ourselves, itself, and so on.

In English sentences, reflexive pronouns occur when we have a noun and then a pronoun in the same sentence that refers to that noun – that reflects back to it, if you’re following me. So take this sentence:

                James shot himself.

Both James and himself refer to the same person – himself, in other words, takes James as its antecedent, though it is also the object of the main verb. This is a reflexive pronoun.

Other uses of the reflexive pronoun:

                Ivy was singing to herself as she danced.
                Luis fixed the truck himself.
                The puppy helped itself to a biscuit.
                God helps them who help themselves.

So long as the pronoun has an antecedent in the immediate sentence, we can call it reflexive.

Usage: This requirement – that there be an antecedent in the immediate sentence – is why this construction (common in spoken English) is not considered standard:

                The decorations were done by Sally and myself.

Because there is no antecedent in the sentence for “myself,” the speaker/writer here shouldn’t be using a reflexive pronoun. What she ought to say is “…done by Sally and me.”

Reciprocal Pronouns
Reciprocal pronouns are a bit like reflexive pronouns, in that these pronouns also point back to nouns in the same sentence which are their antecedents. They differ from reflexive pronouns in that the action is mutual, rather than self-referential.

What does this mean?

Look at these examples:

                Ivy slapped herself. (Reflexive)
                Jim and Felix slapped each other. (Reciprocal.)

In our first sentence, Ivy is doing the action to Ivy. In the second, Jim slaps Felix, and Felix slaps Jim: the action is mutual, rather than reflexive.

                All sixteen of the team members hugged one another.
                During the long trip, my brother and I came to hate each other.

Indefinite Pronouns

Unlike every other pronoun, indefinite pronouns have no antecedent. This is because, being indefinite, they point to no one and nothing specific – there is no referent for them to refer to.

                I wish everybody would just calm down.
                Anyone can understand calculus.
                Someone should fix that window.

Some indefinite pronouns can function as nouns – they’ll usually have articles when they’re functioning this way.

Indefinite pronouns are words like any, some, none, everyone, no one, nothing, anything, and so on. A longer list is on page 126 of your text.

Usage: Two main problems of usage have occurred with the indefinite pronoun. First is the use of words like they and you as though they are indefinite pronouns, rather than personal pronouns.

                They’re working on the highway again.
       You shouldn’t ever speed in a school zone.

Obviously, they and you aren’t indefinite pronouns, but personal pronouns, and as such require clear and obvious antecedents. On the other hand, just as when we use the pronoun “it” as an expletive construction, as in this example,

                It’s raining outside.

-- in which the personal pronoun also has no antecedent—everyone who speaks standard English uses these constructions and knows what they mean. We can build other constructions

                The city is working on the highway again.
                Speeding in a school zone is never safe.

And we probably should in very formal English; but in idiomatic English, this usage is fine.

The second problem is the plural personal pronoun with the singular indefinite.

                Everyone turn over their test now.
                Whoever lost their phone should check in the office.

In the good old days, we solved this problem by using the masculine pronoun and pretending it stood for everyone.

                Everyone turn over his test now.
                Whoever lost his phone should check in the office.

There are two problems with this rule. One is that everyone isn’t male, so this solution doesn’t fit the real world; and the other is that it doesn’t make much sense to most speakers of English, either. We don’t think of “everyone” or “everybody” as singular, we think of them as plural. Even “whoever,” which ought to seem singular to us, since obviously only one person has lost the phone, feels plural to most of us.

In the late seventies and early eighties some grammarians began advising people to say “his or her,” which everyone hates. Now most linguists are admitting that “their” is perfectly fine. Not every professor or editor agrees with this, and if it bugs you a lot as well, you should feel free to rebuild your sentence so that the plural pronoun becomes strictly correct.

                All students should turn over their tests now.
                Whoever lost a phone should check in the office.


1 comment:

  1. I'm reading the novel "Broken Slate" by Kelly Jennings, and it's a pleasure, greatly due to its lean style. The author handles point-of-view and dialogue quite masterfully. Although the story is set on an alien planet, the writer's broad knowledge of the arts and sciences of the Earth, itself, brightly illuminate the work.

    Sympathetic characters, with depth, tell an engaging story which easily captured my interest. In this book, sexual and social tensions ratchet up to create a thriller both personal and political. Potentially classic, yet science fiction for the 21st century—and beyond.

    [Please note: "Broken Slate" is an actual novel, and is much more worthwhile and well-written than this short review, which is, itself, a mere undergraduate exercise of grammar.]