I saw the following sentence:

Throughout literature we find recurring tales of forthright people who are outspoken in condemning illegal practices only to be brought low themselves when they, or members of their families, commit such acts.

I don't understand the grammar (structure) of the term in bold. Can anyone please explain and give more examples? The position of "themselves" is making me very confused.

Source: Barron's 1100 Words You Need to Know

  • We keep hearing about people who complain about the sins of others - but then it turns out that they themselves are guilty of the committing those same sins. This use of "only", as in He was full of excitement when he arrived at the party - only to be disappointed when they wouldn't even let him come in through the door, uses "only" as a negative contrasting conjunction (precisely equivalent to but he was disappointed in my example). Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 19:48
  • Please always cite the source of quoted text. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 21:03
  • Dear FumbleFingers, I've heard (read) sentences like what you said (only to be disappointed). But having "themselves", especially without "they"or "them" before it makes me very confused. I was even thinking maybe it is only some typo or error. According to my knowledge this sentence should have been either "only to be brought low" or (i'm not really sure) "only for them to be brough low". Can anyone explain? Thanks. Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 15:54
  • Related: "only to be brought low..."
    – Laurel
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 19:09
  • Dearl @Laurel, my problem is not with the meaning of the sentence. My problem is with the position of "themselves" in the sentence. I think "themselves" should be omitted here. Do you have any other example of some usage of "themselves" (or myself, etc.) in this way? Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 18:18

3 Answers 3


to be brought low is an idiomatic expression in English.

It can mean to lose one's social position OR it can mean to become sad/depressed.

It means they themselves feel bad when family members commit acts they have been criticizing.

Themselves is used to emphasize the they.

  • Hi and thank you for your answer. My question is why "themselves" is used in such a way? Shouldn't it omit "themselves"? Or shouldn't it be "only for them themselves to be brought low"? Thank you Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 18:18
  • 2
    @HamedHomaee It just emphasizes the third person plural. It is not needed grammatically; it is an "intensifier". Did you do it? Yes, I did it. Compare: Yes, I did it myself.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 19:02

“Themselves” is reflexive: it intensifies the distinction being made. It can easily be eliminated without changing the meaning. The emphasis, however, is altered.


"themselves" refer to "forthright people who are outspoken in condemning illegal practices"

The implicit "high" refers to people who preach morality ("outspoken in condemning illegal practices"), possibly referring to how in old Western churches, preachers give sermon from an pulpit raised high above the floor, even with a canopy to serve as a sounding board. It is the preacher's job to rebuke the congregation who sit at the "low" places (the pews) to repent from their sins.

So "brought low" means when the preacher commits the very act that they are outspokenly condemn, everyone will see that the preacher's place should be "low" at the pews himself/herself. The preacher should be embarrassed.

"low" is an adverb for "brought"

  • Hi, @GratefulDisciple, I'm not the downvoter, but the etymology in your answer seems a bit iffy. The metaphorical meanings of "moral high ground" and "to be brought low" likely predate any specific church architecture. For example, compare "[j]ust is my help from the Lord: who saveth the upright of heart" (for the former) and "[h]e hath opened a pit and dug it; and he is fallen into the hole he made" (for the latter), both quotes from a Psalm attributed to David drbo.org/chapter/21007.htm. So, these would have been written even before the Temple in Jerusalem was built. Commented Apr 5 at 4:49
  • Thus, I really don't think these expressions are meant to refer to pulpits or pews; however, if you can find a source supporting this derivation, it would make your answer much more authoritative. Commented Apr 5 at 4:53

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