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ell.stackexchange.com:
(1) The house has a cat in it.
my variant:
(2) The house has a cat in itself.

As far as I understand, "itself" must be correct here.
But I can't understand how it is possible to use "it" instead of "itself".
Why is "it" grammatical here?

What's the difference between (1) and (2)?

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    Although there are contexts where "has ... in it" is perfectly idiomatic. "Don't throw that pet carrier around like that; it's not empty, it has a cat in it!"
    – TimR
    Dec 30, 2023 at 14:03
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    @JackO'Flaherty: Are you saying that "the house has a cat in itself" is possible? I would dispute that.
    – TonyK
    Dec 30, 2023 at 20:00
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    Why do you think '"itself" must be correct here'? If you give your reasoning, we might be able to give better advice. But if you can't explain it, just ignore me :)
    – wjandrea
    Dec 31, 2023 at 2:07
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    Everyone seems to be assuming reflexive pronouns are only used to avoid ambiguity, but that's misleading. Ambiguity doesn't often occur in "real" (spoken) language anyway. The primary effect of the reflexive pronoun is emphasis, and we use it for that purpose even when there's little or no chance of ambiguity. So although it might be an "unusual" sentence for semantic reasons, there's nothing syntactically invalid about The house has a cat in itself. Dec 31, 2023 at 16:43
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    @Loviii I think you've misunderstood what I'm trying to say: When learning a language, you learn some things through logic and others just by feeling, so if you have a logical reason, please tell us.
    – wjandrea
    Dec 31, 2023 at 18:23

5 Answers 5

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For what it’s worth, in itself would be acceptable with verbs that were more active. Thus

The AI system found a bug in itself.

There, using it would change the sentence’s meaning to be that the thing in which the system found the bug was other than the system itself.

But with your sentence, there is no ambiguity about what or who is being described as containing or possessing the cat, so the simpler pronoun it is correct.

Compare it to

You know my favorite shirt, the one I wore to the party? Well, it has a hole in it,

which means exactly the same thing as “… Well, there’s a hole in it.” You could not say, *”There’s a hole in itself,” because the reflexivity would be doing something misshapen like trying to point back to the hole rather than the shirt.

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  • Yeah seems like reflexive pronouns are for "doing" verbs. You could say "I have a bullet in me" but also "I shot a bullet in myself".
    – Andrew
    Dec 30, 2023 at 17:54
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    Yes, @nschneid, but as with the AI system’s finding a bug, if we say, “The building fell on it,” then the unfortunate stratum to receive the debris is something other than the building itself. Dec 31, 2023 at 3:32
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    Because, @nschneid, in this sense, have is more stative than active. It more or less describes the building's condition, whereas fall describes something the building did. The following would be a very odd phrasing: "What did the house do? I'll tell you what it did: it had a cat in it," never mind if one replaced the final it with itself. Likewise for shirts and holes. And it would be nonsensical to speak of the shirt's having a hole in some other thing, thus no itself is warranted. Dec 31, 2023 at 9:41
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    Or "He is proud of that fact about himself"?
    – nschneid
    Dec 31, 2023 at 18:44
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    Because, @nschneid, in both of your last two examples if you rewrote the sentence with himself replaced by him, you would get a perfectly valid utterance that has a different meaning.. Anyway, don't spend too much time trying to establish a single uniform logic for any human language. None exists for any of them. Dec 31, 2023 at 19:48
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The sentence (2) is incorrect. We use object pronouns (it), not reflexives (itself), after prepositions of place (in).

You may want to read this British Council article on reflexive pronouns.

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We only use "itself" (or similar pronouns like "myself" and "yourself") when it's possible for the object of the verb or prepositional phrase to be something other than the subject, so "it" would be ambiguous. Using "itself" makes it clear that the object is the subject.

But there are many verbs that can only act on the subject. In that case, "it" refers to that subject, and "itself" would be redundant.

"have" is a verb that can only describe the possesions or contents of its subject, so we say "has X in it." It's not possible for the house to have a cat in something else, so we don't need "-self" in the pronoun.

But a person can hurt someone else or themselves. So we say "Joe hurt himself" because "Joe hurt him" would mean hurting some other person.

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This is a good question. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a simple rule that works 100% of the time to explain whether a pronoun should be reflexive (-self) or not.

CGEL (p. 1489) gives examples where, for the pronoun to be interpreted as referring to the same thing as the subject, the reflexive form is required, optional, or impossible:

  • She believes in herself/*her. [must be reflexive]
  • Rhiana saw a spider near her/herself. [optionally reflexive]
  • He liked having children around him/*himself. [cannot be reflexive]

It might be easiest to think of "The house has a cat in it" (or "She has a baby inside her") as involving an idiom: "X has Y in/on/... Z", where Z is a non-reflexive pronoun whose antecedent is X.

There are other idioms with "have" where the pronoun WOULD be reflexive, e.g. "John has the house to himself." ("John has the house to him" does not make sense.)

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  • Rhiana saw a spider near her. [her=Judy] This is why I dislike CGEL.
    – Lambie
    Jan 2 at 20:14
  • I think "her" could refer either to the subject or to someone else. Examples like this seem to have originated in the theoretical linguistics literature, e.g. jstor.org/stable/4178245?seq=4.
    – nschneid
    Jan 2 at 21:57
  • Of course, it can refer to either. Therefore, what they say does not work.
    – Lambie
    Jan 3 at 0:23
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The English reflexive isn't actually a reflexive. It's an intensive, as evidenced by the fact that it's different from the oblique in the first and second persons (me vs. myself, you vs. yourself) unlike many other languages (mich vs. mich in German, for example). It's used for the reflexive because English lost its original reflexive, and the first and second persons were dragged along by analogy.
As a result, there are many, many cases where one would expect to use a reflexive in another language, but use a simple oblique in English, even in the third person. This is one of those: since we don't particularly care about the house (it's the over-all topic, the cat, as new information, is what's really important), we use the simple oblique "it" rather than the intensive, and incidentally reflexive, "itself" to avoid bringing attention to it.
This is especially true given where the "itself" would be. There are two places an intensive pronoun can be placed - directly after it's antecedent, as in "I myself will do it", or at the end of the utterance, as in "I will do it myself". Because your proposal would put the "itself" at the end, it would be an intensive regardless, and you might as well say "the house itself has a cat in it" - note that we still don't use the reflexive in the last position!

Aside: The reflexive possessives are more transparently intensives first, as they are open compounds of the possessive pronoun and the word "own", rather than closed compounds of pronoun plus "self", and we rarely use them unless we are being intensive, rather than reflexive. I bet you didn't even know English had a reflexive possessive until now

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    Wow, I learned something new today! +1 :) For the sake of illustration, I'll add that a true intensive usage of the 3rd person form would be a sentence like "The cat itself chased the mouse," where the subject of 'chase' (the cat) is different from the direct object (the mouse). When the same form is used reflexively, the subject and direct object are the same, as in "The cat washed itself." Jan 2 at 4:23
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    @QuackE.Duck True, intensives are often used just after the noun they intensify, but they can be used elsewhere in the sentence. Compare "I'll do it myself". "Myself" can't be the object, "it" is already serving that purpose, so it can only be an intensive, yet it's idiomatic to put it at the end of the utterance. Similarly, "the cat chased the mouse itself" is ambiguous without context - "itself" could refer to either the cat or the mouse, depending on who's the topic. Thus another reason to avoid "itself" in the OP example: It would be at the end, which is intensive in itself
    – No Name
    Jan 2 at 6:38

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