Saturday, May 1, 2010

Use the reflexive form when the verb’s object is the doer itself

A basic rule in English grammar is that transitive verbs must always have a direct object, which is defined as the word or phrase that receives the verb’s action or denotes the goal of that action. But what happens when the doer of the verb’s action is also the receiver or goal of that action? Can the doer of an action be also its direct object? And how does the language convey that idea?

We learned early in grammar school, of course, that English had come up with the so-called reflexive pronouns for that purpose, and I thought of discussing them in 2004 for the readers of my language column in The Manila Times. I am now posting that essay here for Forum members and guests who might need a similar refresher lesson on the subject. (May 1, 2010)

When the object is the doer itself

We all know that when a sentence uses a transitive verb as the operative verb, it is absolutely necessary for the verb to have a direct object and to act on it: “The woman spurned her suitor last week.” “Her suitor found a better woman yesterday.” Nothing really happens when there’s no direct object to take the action: “The woman spurned last week.” “Her suitor found yesterday.” When a transitive verb can’t act on anything, in fact, expect the sentence to make no sense at all.

A direct object, however, need not always be someone or something other than the subject itself. Indeed, in grammar as in real life, there are many situations in which the subject can perform actions to or for itself as the direct object. The transitive verb therefore still functions in such cases even in the absence of an external object or receiver.

The grammar device used in English to indicate such situations is the reflexive pronoun. Recall now that each of the personal pronouns has a reflexive form that ends with the suffix “self”: “myself” for “I,” the singular “yourself” for the singular “you,” the plural “yourselves” for the plural “you,” “himself” for “he,” “herself “ for “she,” “ourselves” for “we,” “themselves” for “they,” “oneself” for “one,” and “itself” for “it.” The suffix “self” works to pass back the verb’s action to the subject performing that action.

Let’s refresh our memory about the most common applications of reflexive pronouns:

When the subject and direct object are one and the same. A reflexive pronoun is called for when (1) the subject acts on itself, or (2) describes a state, condition, or fact about itself. Acting on oneself: “I restrained myself to avoid getting into trouble.” “The long-distance runner paced herself to conserve her energy.” “They fooled themselves into believing that the pyramid company would make them rich.” Describing one’s own situation: “She considered herself qualified for the post.” “Don’t blame us; we were victimized ourselves.”

In imperative sentences, of course, the reflexive expresses an action that someone expects another or others to do to themselves: “You behave yourself.” “You bring yourselves here at once!” The pronoun “you,” however, is often dropped from such constructions for greater immediacy: “Behave yourself.” “Bring yourselves here at once!”

When the subject itself is the indirect object (usually the object of a preposition). The reflexive works to establish the idea that the subject is not the verb’s direct object but simply an indirect object or intermediate receiver of the action: “I picked some books for myself.” “She is eating lunch all by herself.” “The thieves divided the loot among themselves.”

When the subject needs to be emphasized to make the context clearer. The reflexive can emphasize a particular action as solely the doing of the subject (to the exclusion of everybody else): “I’ll do it myself since nobody wants to help.” “She drove to the city herself because her chauffeur called in sick.” “They drank all the water themselves so we went thirsty.”

We must remember, though, that another type of pronouns, the intensive pronouns, has exactly the same grammatical forms as those of the reflexives. The intensive pronouns, we will recall, function solely to emphasize their antecedent subject, not to act on it in any way: “I myself found the hotel substandard.” “The general manager himself convinced the strikers to return to work.” “They themselves suffered an ignominious defeat at the polls.” What intensive pronouns do is to draw stronger attention to the subject as doer or receiver of the action.

A final point about the behavior of verbs before we close: although as a rule, intransitive verbs can’t take a direct object and act on it, a few intransitive verbs are able to do that. This is when such a verb, to reinforce meaning in a sentence, takes its noun equivalent as a cognate object, or an object represented by a word very close to the verb in form: “Although born rich, he lived the life of a bum.” “We dreamed a dream that couldn’t come true.” “They scrupulously speak the speech of New Yorkers down to the slightest twang.” (December 13, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 13, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


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