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I recently saw the sentence

She knew what he was talking about because of a previous conversation between themselves.

Why is the reflexive pronoun themselves used instead of them? Would

She knew what he was talking about because of a previous conversation between them.

be incorrect?

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  • between them would refer to other parties. themselves is the only way to refer to her and him.
    – Lambie
    May 2, 2023 at 16:42

2 Answers 2

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I disagree slightly with Lambdie's answer from 2018.

The writer might have used 'themselves' to remove ambiguity, and that's certainly a legitimate reason to say 'between themselves' rather than 'between them', but there would be nothing inherently wrong with saying 'because of a previous conversation between them', especially in a context when there are clearly no other people involved.

Personally, I find 'between themselves' sounds cludgy unless it is absolutely necessary. I think most people would say either 'because of a previous conversation between them' or 'because of their previous conversation'.

Comprehension of language depends enormously on context, and if the context makes a meaning obvious, it's better to go with the most succinct option.

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  • She knew what he was talking about because of a previous conversation between themselves. She and he. Versus: She knew what he was talking about because of a previous conversation between them. them=other people, not she and him. For example: the boys on the team.
    – Lambie
    May 20, 2023 at 18:58
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  • To have a conversation with one another or each other. versus: to have a conversation with others.

  • To converse with one another or each other.

We had three conversations [with each other] during the week.

The phrase "with each other or one another"is a signal for a reflexive pronoun:

  • We had three conversations [between ourselves] during the week. That means "We spoke to each other three times in conversations." They had a conversation [between themselves]". In other words, between themselves and not between themselves and other people.

Please note: "We had 10 apples between us." When you read that, you do not know which individual had what number of apples. The same would be true of conversations.

Question: "How many [phone] conversations did the three friends have that week?" Answer: I don't know how many each had, but they had 5 conversations between them.

  • between them refers to some number of conversations (or items) per person
  • between themselves refers to conversations engaged in by two (or more) people with each other.

That said, colloquially, people do say: conversation between them, but you can see where it might be misleading with my example, and why themselves is more accurate.

  • She knew what he was talking about because of a previous conversation between them. [not her and him, but him and others].

  • She knew what he was talking about because of a previous conversation between themselves. [between her and him]

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