Student Stumper 1: Reflexive pronouns

Every so often a sharp, inquisitive student poses a question that challenges us to come up with a clear answer. You’re likely familiar with this scenario. As we listen to the question, a quick raise of the eyebrows is followed by deep furrows in the forehead that match the depth of our concentration. We start answering to the best of our ability, and we may even invite ideas from the class. If the student is still left with doubts that we’re unable to erase, we then promise to do some research and get back to him or her. If we’re lucky, we can later use key words and either turn to the index of a reference book or type those words in a search engine and get some additional insight. When we’re not so lucky, we must continue to ponder the question both on our own and with our colleagues and hope that we’ll be able to get back to the student with a thorough explanation.

This entry will be the first of a new category: Student Stumpers. I’ll share questions that either stumped me in the past for a time or continue to stump me. Please feel free to share your own thoughts on any of these stumpers. Perhaps together we can get un-stumped.

QUESTION: What’s the difference between myself and by myself? Is either of them the same as on my own?

ANSWER:  I immediately thought about using reflexive pronouns to emphasize a particular person or that person’s independence or solitude, but was that all?  To make sure, I got out the Longman Dictionary of American English and refreshed my memory. Listed were not two but four ways reflexive pronouns could be used for emphasis:

(1)    to emphasize the subject or object  (“me and not anyone else”)

Don’t worry about the laundry. I’ll do it myself.

(2)    to emphasize an action done without help

We don’t need a third person. The two of us can carry the box by ourselves.

(3)    to emphasize being alone

I didn’t see any of my classmates in the cafeteria, so I sat by myself and ate my lunch.

(4)    to emphasize for one’s own use

My grandmother can’t climb the stairs anymore, so when I visit her I have the second floor all to myself.

The phrase on my own seems to be close in meaning to the second and third definition:

                (2) without help = Claudia learned English on her own.

                (3) alone = Ivan doesn’t live with his parents anymore. He lives on his own.

The student who recently posed this question then asked me if the following two sentences were the same:

  • He lives on his own.
  • He lives by himself.

Hmm, I said. Yes, they’re basically the same. But couldn’t each statement have a slightly different nuance? Without further context, on his own seems to suggest independence.  By himself emphasizes he’s all alone, which could be good if it’s his preference or bad if he lacks company.

Another question that entered my mind was about word order. When do we place an intensifying pronoun right after the subject and when can there be separation? Examples:

  • I myself have no clue. (Can we say: I have no clue myself?)
  • I’ll research this topic myself. (Can we say: I myself will research this topic?)

Are you yourself stumped?


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