English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In the earliest grades of elementary schools, students learn that "hisself" and "theirselves" are not words. I do not understand why this is.

If you wanted to refer to 'his' sock, you would say "his sock," not "him sock." Similarly, you would say "their socks," not "them socks."

Why do you not call 'his' self hisself and 'their' selves as theirselves?

share|improve this question
I had never made this connection. You totally blew my mind today, thanks. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 28 '11 at 23:11
up vote 15 down vote accepted

There appear to be a couple of competing theories for why this happened.

The first is essentially phonetic: the forms where a 'genitive' is used are the ones where genitive and oblique forms differ in a single vowel ("thou" vs "thy", "me" vs "my" etc, compared to "him" vs "his" where there's also a consonant change). As I understand, the main problem with this theory is that if it was true, you might expect to see a period of variation between "genitive" vs "oblique" forms across the board, including e.g. "himself" vs "hisself". There's a small amount of evidence for this (e.g. different manuscripts of the same text where forms such as "himself"~"hisself" alternate in what is otherwise the same sentence). But maybe not as much evidence as you'd expect.

The alternative theory is syntactic and a bit more complex but essentially has to do with a statistical split that already existed in Old English. In Old English, "self" was essentially an adjective that served as an intensifier, a bit like "own", "very", "per se" in English today. Old English didn't have "reflexives" as such: "I saw me" was the way to say "I saw myelf" (as it is in German, French etc today); "I saw me self", would be a particularly emphatic version, a bit like saying "I saw my very self" in Modern English. Now, the interesting thing to note at this stage is that (a) as an adjective, "self" was case-marked as usual, and was of the same case as the word it accompanied; (b) as an adjective, "self" was readily used with any noun and so was probably more common in the third person at that stage. Or put another way, in Old English, saying "thou self" was a bit like saying something like "you your very self" today: it was an emphatic phrase that would occasionally be inserted, but wasn't so common compared to in the third person.

As Old English gradually lost its case system, there was then a grammatical "re-shifting" or re-interpretation that took place. One important change was that "self" gradually changed from an adjective into a noun, probably driven by the loss of case endings (a word used as a general intensifier in lots of places is arguably more recognisable as an adjective if it has case endings).

As that occurred, the third person cases of "him self" etc where then more clearly marked as "objects" because they also frequently occurred in parallel to other cases of "self" still as an intensifier alongside other nouns/noun phrases (i.e. people still said "I saw him self", but also "I saw the butcher self", so they had it 'more in their minds' that "self" in these third person cases was used alongside an 'object'). So there wasn't so much impetus to evolve "him self" > "his self" (though there are a few instances of evidence for "himself" ~ "hisself" existing as alternatives in Middle English).

In the other persons, on the other hand, a phrase like "I/me self" tended to be used in a sentence as an emphatic "incise" or interpolated phrase rather than the subject/object per se-- a bit like saying nowadays "I myself, I believe that...". So in these cases, with "self" as a noun, there was more of an impetus for "I/me self" to evolve to "my self" to help allow the noun "self" to 'have somewhere to go to' grammatically: "my self" now becomes a more cohesive unit. It's worth noting that the third person forms "himself" etc fused together earlier than "my self" etc, which continued to be written as two words for some time.

Further reading (on which the above draws):

  • Van Gelderen (2000), "A History of English Reflexive Pronouns: Person, Self, and Interpretability."
  • Danijela (2003), Review of the above book in The Canadian Journal of Linguistics (which helps to summarise some of the main arguments)
  • Sinar, B., (2006), "A History of English Reexives: from Old English into Early Modern English" (a PhD thesis that doesn't focus exclusively on this issue, but mentions it in passing with some examples of some of the forms/phenomena I've mentioned above)
share|improve this answer
This is a great answer. One thing to add: etmyonline makes the claim that myself evolved from meself by analogy with herself (since her is ambiguous between dative/genitive). If that's true, then it's very possible that herself heavily contributed to the shift that you describe, in addition to the change of self to noun from adjective. – Kosmonaut Jul 8 '11 at 13:19
Excellent answer. Marked as such. – Seth Carnegie Jul 8 '11 at 15:22
Kosmonaut: re "herself", a problem I see with this is that fairly early on there appears to have been a distinction between the possessive forms ("my self" etc) written as two words, whereas oblique forms ("himself") written as a single word (Sinar, pp 58-59). So, I wonder if there would have been a difference to native speakers at the time, rather than confusion, between "her self" vs "herself". – Neil Coffey Jul 8 '11 at 16:35

Think about it like this:

They killed him.

He killed himself.

You don't say "they killed his," but you say "they killed him." If the same person is the object of the sentence, you must add "self", therefore "himself."

As you can see, the idea isn't derived from "something belonging to someone" like "his, their", but rather "something happening to someone", like "to him, to them". When the situation is recursive, you simply add "self" to correct the recursivity problem, thus creating "himself", "themselves", etc. This rule applies only to "himself" and "themselves". In all the other cases (see the table at the end of the answer), it works exactly like you described = "my own self" -> "myself", "her own self" -> "herself", etc.

Additionally, there are other "selves", like "oneself". Example usage:

One can see oneself in the mirror.

To avoid further confusion, I thought I'd list them all properly side by side:

I = myself
you = yourself
he = himself
she = herself
it = itself

we = ourselves
you = yourselves
they = themselves

one = oneself

share|improve this answer
Wouldn't it be "usselves" instead of "ourselves" too, or am I mistaken? – Kit Z. Fox Jun 28 '11 at 23:10
No, it's definitely ourselves. – RiMMER Jun 28 '11 at 23:11
I don't know if this actually answers the question. Why, if all other forms are formed from [posessive] + self (see note), is it himself and themselves. I believe I remember being told in one of my linguistics classes that hisself and theirselves were the original forms, and then later changed. Note: I would argue that herself is formed from the possessive "her", not the objective. Additionally, I would argue that in itself and oneself, the "s" of the possessive is simply being reduced, as it appears next to the "s" of "self". – rintaun Jun 28 '11 at 23:25
I agree my answer doesn't fully explain why the forms exist as they do, unfortunately, I'm not sure whether it can be answered. If you can answer it fully, please do so and I will certainly up-vote your answer! – RiMMER Jun 28 '11 at 23:27
You are attempting to put consistent logic into something that is idiosyncratic today. Your "killed him/killed himself" example has an obvious counterexample: "he killed his enemy", which is equally valid and would support the opposite logic. Then you say "the idea isn't derived from something belonging to someone", but you don't explain why most of the reflexive pronouns follow a genitive structure, and only a couple don't. – Kosmonaut Jul 8 '11 at 13:13

Funnily enough in Geordie and many Northern UK dialects it's the possesive throughout. Mesel(f) = myself Yasel(f) = yourself Hesel(f)/Hasel(f)/Itssel(f)/Thesel(f) = hisself/herself/itself/their self Wa/worsels = ourselves Yesels = yourselves Thesels = theirselves

share|improve this answer
Kinda. Northern accents have a weak form of the possessive my which is pronounced the same as the oblique pronoun me. But they are not actually saying me; they're simply pronouncing my differently. – tchrist Jul 10 at 4:09

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.