[This post has been written with ESL/EFL students in mind, CEFR level B1 and above.]
Thus sang Billie Holiday in a lovely song first recorded in 1937. Besides her, many others have made use of the three forms of the 1st person singular pronoun like that, to emphasise the intensity of their feelings: not just me, but also myself and I think you’re wonderful – every single part of my being.
That’s a kind of poetic word play, but in this post I’m going to explain what these different forms of personal pronouns actually are and how to use them. Brace yourself for a long grammar post! (There’s also a 10-question grammar quiz waiting for you at the end.)
Pronouns, in general, are words that can replace nouns and that’s exactly what this grammar term means: it’s a combination of the Latin preposition pro meaning ‘for’ or ‘instead of’ and the word noun. Rather than repeating the same noun all the time, it sounds much more natural to replace it with a pronoun:
Susan is 26.
Susan works as a librarian. Susan loves her job. >>
Susan is 26. She works as a librarian and (she) loves her job.
Personal pronouns in English come in three forms depending on their function in a sentence:
- reflexive & intensive
(There are also possessive pronouns and adjectives, but I’ll leave them for another post as they are a separate topic.)
Use these forms when the personal pronoun is the subject, i.e. the doer of the action in a sentence.
Subject pronouns normally come before the verb:
I go for long walks every day.
He is ordering pizza for lunch.
We plan to travel to Italy.
Note that the 3rd person plural they can be used to refer to a singular subject, for instance, when we don’t know a person’s gender or it’s completely irrelevant. It can come after everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, nobody, no one, and after the interrogative who. It’s far more practical to use the singular they than saying he or she all the time:
If someone calls, tell them I’m out of the office.
Who said they could do this job better than me?
The form changes if a pronoun happens to be the object of someone else’s action, direct or indirect. They are among the last surviving remnants of the case system in English, hence the different forms for all persons except you (singular and plural) and it.
Object pronouns normally come after the main verb:
She asked me to open the window.
I told them to go home.
We bought her a present.
All of the reflexive personal pronouns end with the suffix -self / -selves.
The term reflexive implies that the action somehow reflects on or refers back to the subject of the sentence. There are whole classes of verbs that go with reflexive pronouns and in such sentences we cannot omit them. Here you have to be careful: verbs that are reflexive in English may not necessarily be reflexive in other languages, and vice versa.
She hurt herself while playing volleyball. (She did something that resulted in her own injury.)
I cut myself while shaving this morning. (‘Myself’ is the object required by the verb; I did it to my own face.)
Subject pronouns and the reflexives have to refer to the same person; we can’t have a mismatch: ‘She hurt her while playing volleyball’ is correct but the meaning is different, as the sentence now implies two people – she hurt another woman, not herself.
In some languages you would also use reflexive pronouns after prepositions of place, but that’s typically not the case in English where object pronouns are used instead, especially when there is no ambiguity:
I closed the door behind me.
A woman is pulling her suitcase behind her.
The same rule generally applies with the use of object pronouns after with:
She took a few books with her.
I invited him to go to the cinema with me.
Their children still live with them.
Reflexive pronouns are very often used to emphasise the subject – for example, to indicate that the subject accomplished something alone, without anyone’s help. Such pronouns are reflexive in form, but due to this specific use, some grammarians refer to them as intensive pronouns. Again, the difference is only in use, not in form.
I wrote the essay by myself. (Nobody else helped me and I’m very proud of that.)
You yourself told me what happened. (It highlights the subject and comes immediately after it.)
He got himself promoted. (It doesn’t mean that he promoted himself, but that he earned this promotion by all his hard work.)
As I’ve mentioned earlier, you cannot omit a proper reflexive pronoun, but you can omit these intensive ones. Sentences will still be grammatically correct, but they will lose the intensity: ‘I wrote the essay’, ‘You told me what happened’, ‘He got promoted’ are perfectly fine, but they sound like simple facts with no emphasis.
Since we started with me, myself and I, just a few more notes on the 1st person pronoun.
One very common mistake that even native speakers make has to do with the choice between I and me. You will hear people use the object form me instead of the subject form I, as in: ‘My friends and me…’ or ‘Me and my friends…’ Some speakers barely register that as a mistake, at least in spoken language.
If we’re going to be strict about this, and you’re in a dilemma about what to use, take out the other person from the sentence and see what you’re left with. Are you using the pronoun as a subject or an object?
My friends and me love going to the cinema. >> Me love going to the cinema. INCORRECT
My friends and I love going to the cinema. >> I love going to the cinema. CORRECT
(“I and my friends…” sounds most unusual although it seems technically correct since I is the subject. Don’t structure a sentence like that.)
How about these two? Which sentence is correct?
My mother will buy new toys for… my brother and me. OR … my brother and I.
Here ‘my brother and me’ is correct, because that whole part of the sentence is the indirect object, not the subject, so we have to use the object pronoun.
Before we part, just to add that there are exceptions to the above rules, which are sometimes a matter of style and preference. Then there’s also non-standard use which greatly varies, as in dialects.
Just to mess with your head, I’m sharing this interesting map with different forms of the 3rd person plural reflexive pronoun used in various parts of England. You might wonder whether anyone actually uses the “proper” forms of these pronouns…
What I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if you hear or read a sentence that doesn’t quite match with what you’ve read here or in a grammar book.
Now that you’ve read these basic explanations, try the grammar quiz I’ve prepared on the topic of personal pronouns (standard use only! :)).