In Greek mythology Narcissus looked into the water of the pool and saw his own reflection. In other words he saw himself — he saw a reflection of himself. Both those words that I have highlighted are called reflexive pronouns and in both cases the subject and the object are the same just like the reflection of Narcissus. But we'll come back to that later.

Let's do some more reflecting or thinking. A reflection, apart from being another picture of someone or something as in the case of our Greek friend, who incidentally died gazing at his reflection in the pool, is also another word for a considered thought or coming back to think about something again. If you are writing an account of your childhood for example and you are thinking back to that time, you could call this description; "Reflections of my childhood." Again if you think that crime occurs because of the type of society in which people live, you could say that "The increase in crime in cities is a sad reflection of the poor conditions in which some people live." In these examples you can see that one thing is a sort of representation of another. In fact the older spelling of "reflection" was "reflexion" and we also find "reflective" and "reflexive". The former means "thinking seriously about" — you can be described as "in a reflective mood" when you are deep in thought about has happened. The latter of course brings us back to the pronoun.

Let me show the forms of the reflexive pronoun in tabular form using the same sentence:

  • I saw myself on the TV news last night.
  • You saw yourself on the TV news last night.
  • He saw himself on the TV news last night.
  • She saw herself on the TV news last night.
  • It saw itself on the TV news last night. (Let's imagine the "it" here refers to the dog!)
  • We saw ourselves on the TV news last night.
  • You saw yourselves (plural) on the TV news last night.
  • They saw themselves on the TV news last night.

Two points to note in particular: "you" as a personal pronoun does not change when it becomes plural but it does in the reflexive pronoun: the spelling of the third person plural — themselves.

Take a look at these two sentences, both of which contain the word "himself" but in each sentence the word has a different meaning:

  • Narcissus himself saw it in the water.
  • Narcissus saw himself in the water.

In the second sentence the meaning is that Narcissus saw a reflection of himself in the water but in the first sentence the meaning is that Narcissus and nobody else saw it in the water. When it has that meaning we call the pronoun an emphatic pronoun but the form in singular and plural and all the "persons" is exactly the same as with the reflexive pronoun. The important thing about the emphatic pronoun is that it is not used always with transitive verbs and obviously is not used with sentences where the subject and object are the same. Now let's put all that into a very short and simple narrative and try and find which are emphatic and which are reflexive pronouns: Imagine a young man at a party who is very full of himself and who is talking to another person whose back is itself facing a mirror:

Personally I myself have always prided myself on being able to look after myself in whatever situation I happen to find myself. My father himself always taught me to take decisions. "You should make your own mind up yourself and let other people get on with things by themselves." Those are the very words themselves that he used. I don't know what you yourself do. I mean we are all supposed to try and make the best of ourselves. I guess or I imagine from what you yourself look like that you have a reasonable job. I don't imagine that you earn as much as I myself do. I assume that you and your family are yourselves struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage? What exactly do you yourself do for a living?' For a moment the pompous young man turned round on himself. When he turned back he found himself staring at himself in the mirror. The other 'self' had slipped away and was now enjoying herself in another part of the room talking to a young man who was looking very pleased with himself.
Author: Alan Townend