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I have read answers to questions like When is it correct to use "yourself" and "myself" (versus "you" and "me")? but I couldn't find a general rule for using "you" or "yourself", "him" or "himself" that could explain things I see in some examples.

For example, I think that one normally say (according to examples I see in LDOCE dictionary):

  • You bring something with you.
  • You have something in you.
  • You have something on you.
  • You pressed her to you.

But on the other hand one would say:

  • You draw attention to yourself.
  • He killed himself.
  • You can try it out for yourself.

As a general rule, it seems that the reflexive pronoun is used when the object is the same as the subject of the verb. But for prepositional phrases, it seems more complicated. Do some prepositions (like "with", "in", "on") always come with the accusative form of the pronoun, and some other (like "for") don't? What about "to", that seems to be followed by both in different circumstances?

  • 'You killed yourself' is probably off-topic, Cyrille! – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '13 at 17:13
  • Is it? I wanted to include a non-prepositional example, to sustain my following remark on object being reflexive. – Cyrille Ka Nov 6 '13 at 17:17
  • 'He killed himself' raises (!) fewer problems. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '13 at 17:21
  • I've modified the example but what problems are you talking about? – Cyrille Ka Nov 6 '13 at 17:24
  • Let's just say that any appropriate context for You killed yourself involves some unusual presuppositions. The general rule is the norm, all right, but notice that the definition of what's an "object" is a little vague. – John Lawler Nov 6 '13 at 19:19
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There is an introduction to this in this article from the University of Victoria Study Zone, but an introduction is all it is.

Reflexive pronouns are used after many verb + preposition combinations [where prepositional object and subject have the same referent!], such as those that follow ...

[and only 4 examples are provided!]

KÖNIG AND GAST go a little further in attempting to rationalise the situation:

1.1 Optional reflexives In contrast to German, reflexive pronouns are optional in cases like the following:

(9) a. John saw a snake near him/himself.
b. Mary pushed the brandy away from her/herself.
c. Liz wrapped the rug around her/herself.

d. Bill pulled the blanket over him/himself.

Even though the self-forms in examples like (9) may find their antecedents within the same clause, such forms are not obligatory, but can freely be replaced by the corresponding personal pronouns, possibly with a slight change in the perspective expressed....

1.3 Unexpected personal pronouns Among the peculiarities of English also the following structures have to be listed:

(11) a. John did not have any money on him (/*himself).
b. He likes having children around him.
c. Mary has a whole week of travelling before her.
d. Mary put all her problems behind her.

In sentences such as these reflexive anaphors are excluded. As in (9), the pronouns relate to an antecedent within the same clause and thus do express co-reference. In contrast to (9), however, the prepositional phrases containing these pronouns can in most cases not be regarded as co-arguments of these antecedents. Moreover, semantically, co- reference is the only option here. The pronouns in (11) cannot be replaced by or coordinated with other noun phrases, nor can they be stressed. In other words, Mary cannot leave her problems behind somebody else and John cannot have any money on Bill.

However, it is probably not easy to distinguish many cases where reflexives should be used. In such cases, it is best to check unfamiliar usages on Google (eg I have some "money on me" v "money on myself"; "Look after yourself" v "Look after you", disregarding false positives "I am going to spend some money on myself"; "Mary will look after you" etc). Dictionaries may include helpful examples.

Sometimes, a reflexive pronoun may be substituted for the more natural non-reflexive one for emphasis ("For me/myself, it's about the way I carry myself and the way I treat other people.")

  • 1
    "Many", huh? That's helpful. – John Lawler Nov 6 '13 at 18:38
4

A person is a multi-faceted thing.

"It's you!" = It matches your usual portrayal of yourself.

"You have something on you." = You have something on your body.

"You pressed her to you." = Ditto: your body.

"Bill pulled the blanket over himself." = Bill pulled the blanket not over some other "him" but over the "him" that is his own essence and not belonging to someone else. (You belong to yourself.)

"You bring something with you." = You bring something along with your presence.

The reflexive is used, in general, when the two expressions relate to the same facet.

"You draw attention to yourself." = You (the self-aware part of you) draw attention to your self.

"He killed himself." = He (the actor) killed all the facets of his being (one of which is the actor).

"You have something in you." = Could go either way -- "You have something in yourself." The first implies in your appearance to others; the second that you (the self-aware) have something that you can become aware of.

If this does not answer all cases, at least it gives something to think about.

  • Right on, thanks. I won't hafta go into the body business in my answer, then. – John Lawler Nov 6 '13 at 20:07
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This is an interesting topic, and no doubt there's a literature on it,
but I don't know it, so no references. Sorry.

Reflexives, like any set of pronouns, have multiple uses. Plus not all languages have them.
In English, the general rule is that,
- when there are two coreferential NPs in the same clause,
- the second NP is required to be a reflexive pronoun.
Exceptions abound, as noted.

Let me just remark on the presenting examples below:
(in all of these, we are presupposing that identical pronouns refer to identical people, OK?)

First, there's the ones that don't allow reflexives, but require personal pronouns:

  • You bring something with you/**yourself.*
  • You have something on you/**yourself.*
  • You pressed her to you/**yourself.*

Then there's the ones that swing the other way -- they require reflexives and forbid others:

  • You draw attention to **you/yourself.*
  • You can try it out for **you/yourself.*
  • He killed **him/himself.*

Finally, there's some that can swing both ways; both types are OK:

  • You have something in you/yourself.

As shipr has pointed out, the second pronoun in the first bunch refers to your (or his) body,
not to the subject you (or he), which refers in each case to the person's identity/soul/mind/spirit/character/personality/insert metaphor here,
and not to the body specifically This means it can be considered as not coreferential.
Hence the rule does not apply.

As for whether you have something in you, or whether you have something in yourself, one assumes first of all that the something in question is not physical. If for instance it's a defibrillator installed in your chest, then the reflexive would be ungrammatical. So it must be spiritual/mental/emotional/judgmental/abstract/insert metaphoric adjective here.
But I can't go much farther than that.

It's an exception, and there may be others, if you look for them.
Or literature. Ross has a paper on "Clause-Matiness", which looks at it, I think.

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It seems that the cases where you cannot use reflexive pronouns tend to be the sentences where the two pronouns can only be understood as referencing the same person. In

he drew attention to him,
he killed him,
he can try it out for him,

by default "he" and "him" would be different people.

In

he brought someone with him,
he had something on him,

"he" and "him" have to be the same person. (Well, "he had something on him" also could mean "he is able to blackmail him", but these are completely different meanings, so it doesn't affect the grammar.)

Unfortunately, this leaves the problem of explaining why in "he brought someone with him", you know "he" and "him" are the same person, and why in "he killed him" they aren't.

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This is what the Oxford Guide to English Grammar by John Eastwood says:

1 After prepositions we sometimes use the personal pronouns and sometimes the reflexive pronouns. The personal pronouns are used when it is clear that the pronoun refers to the subject.

2 Sometimes we use the reflexive pronoun to make the meaning clear.

There follow some minor points which are not so important.

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