35

I was correcting a sentence written by a Japanese friend, and I corrected one of his sentences to:

"Learning foreign languages changed me".

He asked me why he could not use "myself" instead. I am kind of at a loss of how to explain this to him. Please help me. Thank you in advance.

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jul 30 '18 at 0:50

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

54

myself pronoun 1 (reflexive first person singular) Used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself as the object of a verb or preposition when he or she is the subject of the clause. ‘I strolled around, muttering to myself’ - ODO

The reason it sounds odd is because in your quote, the subject is "Learning foreign languages", not the first-person individual. Had the sentence been "By learning foreign languages, I changed myself", the word 'myself' wouldn't have sounded out of place.

  • Ah, but there's more to it than this! (see my answer footling at the bottom of the page!) – Araucaria Jul 27 '18 at 18:49
39

"Myself" is a reflexive pronoun, which can only be used when the subject and object of the verb are the same.

He patted me on the back.

but

I patted myself on the back.

In this case the subject is "learning foreign languages", but the object is your friend. The sentence could be reworked to use "myself": "By learning foreign languages, I have changed myself." (The result doesn't have quite the same meaning as the original sentence, though.)

Other reflexive pronouns include "itself", "themselves", "himself", etc.

  • Other reflexive pronouns include... basically anything in the form someoneself. – Ruslan Jul 26 '18 at 14:46
  • In I gave Suzy a picture of herself herself is not an object and Suzy is not a subject. And myself is not an object in I did it by myself. – Araucaria Jul 27 '18 at 12:16
  • I'm sorry but this is one of those lemmings' questions. [,,,]"which can only be used when the subject and object of the verb are the same": He patted me on the back. Great; but not: he patted myself on the back. Your first statement implies that it would be. The OP's question does not contain the word friend. – Lambie Jul 29 '18 at 18:22
17

Normally with 'myself' I would be the subject. I pinched myself. But: he pinched me.

9

The Original Poster's Japanese friend has a very good reason to ask this question, and if we don't understand what this is, then we cannot fully answer the question.

We usually need a reflexive pronoun when two noun phrases in a clause refer to the same being or entity:

  • Bob(i) kicked himself(i)

These don't need to be the subject and object of the clause:

  • Bob(i) had a picture of himself(i).

  • I gave Bob(i) a picture of himself(i).

In the first example above the reflexive himself is the complement of a preposition. In the second, the original referring expression, Bob, is an object, not a subject.

Now, we also need to use a reflexive if a pronouns co-refers with the UNEXPRESSED SUBJECT of a clause. For example, consider the following:

  • Take a look at yourself in the mirror. You look great!

Here the unexpressed subject of the imperative clause is you. Because the pronoun after the word at refers to the same person as the person who's going to be doing the looking, you, it must be reflexive. A reflexive pronoun is also required in the following example:

  • By teaching yourself English, you can massively improve your employment prospects.

Here the understood subject of the verb teaching is you. We can rephrase the sentence, rather awkwardly, like this:

  • By your teaching yourself English, you can massively improve your employment prospects.

So the person being taught is the same as the person doing the teaching. Because yourself is in the same clause as the unexpressed subject, it needs to be reflexive.

Now let's have a look at the Original Poster's sentence:

  • Learning foreign languages changed me.

Here the unexpressed subject of the verb learning is me. The object of the verb change is also me. So the question is why isn't the object of the verb changed required to be reflexive here, given that it occurs in the same clause as the verb learning—which has a co-referential, though unexpressed, subject?

One extremely bad answer would be to say that the subject of the verb changed is not the same as the object of the verb changed. This is a bad answer, because as we have seen from the Bob had a picture of himself example, if a pronoun refers to the same entity as a noun phrase in the same clause, it is usually required to be reflexive regardless of whether either of them is the subject or the object. In the photo example, himself is not what is being given.

The real answer to the Original Poster's question is that we only need a reflexive pronoun if it occurs in the same minimal clause as a co-referential noun phrase. In other words they must both occur in the same smallest clause. In the following example he occurs in a smaller clause inside the larger sentence and the noun Bob is not inside this same small clause. For this reason no reflexive is required:

  • Bob believes [he is a great singer].

Similarly, in the example given by the Original Poster, the unexpressed subject of the verb learning is in a smaller clause inside the larger sentence. The pronoun me does not occur inside this clause and isn't required to be reflexive:

  • [ Me learning foreign languages] changed me.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy