A Word, Please: Do yourself a favor and read this primer on reflexive pronouns

A black-and-white image of a blond woman smiling into a mirror
Ana de Armas, as Marilyn Monroe, looks at herself in a mirror in “Blonde.”
(2022 © Netflix)

In all your years of hanging around with English speakers, you probably never heard someone say, “Come by the office and talk to myself” or “Would someone please tell myself what’s going on?”

But throw in another person and suddenly people will use “myself” to do jobs they wouldn’t let it do alone: “Come by the office and talk to Bill or myself,” “Please tell Irma and myself what’s going on.”

It’s strange.

“Myself” is a reflexive pronoun, part of a small word club that comprises only “yourself,” “herself,” “ourselves” and others ending in “self.” Technically, these reflexive pronouns have one job: They’re objects that refer back to the subject of the sentence.


“I sent myself an email.” Here, the subject of the sentence is the speaker, “I,” and that person is sending the email to that same person. In “Send yourself an email,” the implied subject of the imperative verb is “you.” The reflexive pronoun “yourself” refers back to that person.

The same is true no matter the subject: He sent himself an email. They sent themselves an email.

Notice how unnatural it would be to use a reflexive pronoun to refer to anyone but the subject, like if you sent an email to a friend, you wouldn’t say “I sent himself an email.” You would say you sent it to “him” because the recipient and the sender, in this case, are not the same person. “You sent themselves an email,” “We sent herself an email,” are clearly wrong because they require simple object pronouns, not reflexive pronouns.

The opposite is also true: “I saw me in the mirror,” “He got him fired,” “You bought you a new sweater.” Regular object pronouns just don’t work when you need to refer back to the subject.

Google’s Ngram Viewer makes it easy for readers to check on the popularity of words in the last two centuries.

April 16, 2024

So that’s the job — the only official job — of reflexive pronouns. Yet that’s not the only way they’re used, as we saw in examples like “Talk to Bill or myself” above. And that’s the unusual, frustrating thing about grammar: It makes its own rules — and keeps remaking them all the time. That’s why reflexive pronouns like “myself” have more than one function.

As Merriam-Webster’s dictionary explains, the reflexive pronoun “myself” is often used where “I” might be expected,” for example, “others and myself continued to press for legislation.”

The lexicographers at Merriam-Webster also point out that people will often reach for “myself” when they need a pronoun to immediately follow “as,” “than” or “like.” The classic example, “people such as myself,” seems like a pretty good choice compared to the awkward sounding “people such as I” and “people such as me.”

“Myself” is sometimes used as an intensifier, as in, “I, myself, never cared for that TV show.” In that use, it’s similar to constructions you’ll find in some other languages, like the French “moi, je,” meaning, “me, I.”

And of course, as Merriam’s also recognizes, sometimes people just like to plug in “myself” for plain-old “me” even in cases where “me” would work as well or better.

Reflexive pronouns other than “myself” can show up doing these jobs sometimes, too. But “myself” is the most popular, which I personally suspect has to do with English speakers’ fear that “me” is improper in sentences like “Speak to Bill or me.” It’s not. But I understand why “myself” might feel more proper or more formal.

If you find yourself naturally reaching for “myself” in certain situations, you don’t have to worry you’re making a bad choice, though some people may think you’re using subpar English.

“Critics have frowned on these uses since about the turn of the century, probably unaware that they serve a definite purpose,” Merriam’s advises. “Users themselves are as unaware as the critics — they simply follow their instincts. These uses are standard.”

June Casagrande is author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at