English does distinguish between a regular pronoun and a self referential one in all persons. However, it seems like the reflexive form isn't always needed.

She told him good bye and shut the door behind her.

I (not a native speaker) feel like saying "behind herself" would actually sound odd here. Here are my questions:

  • Is the sentence correct without a reflexive marker?
  • Would it sound wrong to use one?

If yes:

  • What would happen if "she" shuts the door and there's another female in the room? How would we know who has left?

  • Is there a rule to tell when one is needed? (I feel like it would be needed here: "She put the book behind herself"... sorry if that isn't idiomatic)

  • "Her" is an objective pronoun. Thinking of the sentence syntactically, "her" is absolutely correct. "Herself" is also an objective pronoun, and I believe reflexive pronouns are just possible replacements for the main objective pronoun. Remember also that "herself" can be extrapolated to "her self", so you're literally saying that she shut the door behind the self owned by her, which is just as right, just with a noun instead of a pronoun. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 27 '15 at 19:46
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    @JonathanSpirit... but wouldn't that mean that I can say "She washes her." and rely on context to clear up the rest? Why is the reflexive mandatory here but not in the other case? – Emanuel Jan 27 '15 at 19:47
  • That's a very valid comment. I'll do some research in style books to find out. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 27 '15 at 19:50
  • Style books are no help. Instead I looked to Wikipedia, which states that reflexive pronouns should be used when the pronoun's antecedent is the subject of the clause. So, in response to your first two questions: the sentence is incorrect without the reflexive pronoun, because the pronoun's antecedent is the subject of the sentence. I as a native speaker would personally use "herself" as I think it sounds better. I'll answer all four questions in an answer. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 27 '15 at 20:02
  • In general, that's the reflexive rule. But fixed phrases like shut the door behind X typically don't require reflexives with a coreferential subject: Get out of here and shut the door behind you/*him. The subject is clearly you (understood), but a reflexive is not normally used, and may sound overly formal for an angry context. Think of this as an exception to the reflexive rule, generated by idiom. – John Lawler Jan 27 '15 at 20:11

There's an exception when the reference is to location/place.

But we use personal pronouns, not reflexives, after prepositions of place...

See ngram for (behind her),(behind herself),(behind him),(behind himself)

P.S. In response to the side-exchange with Araucaria. This is too long for a comment, so I'm appending it:

As I see it, when an idiom uses a "locative" preposition, yet the meaning of the idiom has gone very far afield from a literally locative meaning, the preposition does not cease to be locative. In the German er ist zur Zeit nicht ganz auf dem Posten (~ "He's feeling under the weather") auf dem Posten still seems to function as a locative, even though the meaning of the expression is that the person is feeling ill. Same thing with "under the weather". The spatial meaning of the prepositions in those idioms has become very attenuated, to be sure, but I would still say they were locative prepositions. When we say "Don't worry, put it behind you" we don't literally mean put it in back of you. We mean "forget about it, let it go". But on some linguistic level, the locative sense is present. It seems to be a matter of degree: how attenuated the spatial meaning has become.

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  • Do you have anywhere else from which to cite this? The page doesn't have any citations and I don't feel that this is correct. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 27 '15 at 20:33
  • You have greater trust in Wikipedia??? – TRomano Jan 27 '15 at 20:36
  • But even that warning has exceptions: He was beside himself with grief. – TRomano Jan 27 '15 at 20:38
  • Wikipedia has at the very least citations. This page isn't affiliated with any institutions of grammar, and neither is the only other one I found that mentions this. And that isn't an exception to this possible exception, because in this case it isn't a preposition of location. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 27 '15 at 20:41
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    Which preposition isn't a preposition of location? – TRomano Jan 27 '15 at 20:48

The rules about reflexives are very subtle and quite complicated. The general rule is that we need a reflexive when the pronoun occurs in the same immediate domain as another noun with the same reference. A domain is either the smallest clause that the pronoun occurs in, or a noun phrase where the determiner and another noun have the same reference.

  • I gave Mary a picture of herself
  • I wanted Bob to teach me.
  • I taught myself.
  • His description of himself ....

In the first sentence Mary and herself occur within the same clause, so we see a reflexive. In the second sentence, however although I and me are in the same larger clause, there is a smaller embedded clause headed by the verb teach. Because me is in this smaller clause but I is not, we don't need a reflexive pronoun. In the third sentence, which is there for contrast, we can see I and myself occurring in the same clause. Determiners like his and so forth do not normally count as co-referential within a domain. However, when a noun occurs in the same noun phrase as a co-referential determiner, we do need a reflexive. In the fourth example, we see the determiner his occurring in the same noun phrase as himself.

So far we have just talked about sentences where there are two words that are co-referential. We also need to think about people who may be actors in the sentence but are unexpressed - people or things that aren't represented by words. Most importantly we need to think about unexpressed subjects. Consider the following example:

  • Take care of yourself!

Here, the reflexive pronoun yourself does not co-refer with any other noun. However it occurs in the same clause as the verb take and the unexpressed subject of take is you. Because yourself refers to the same entity as the subject of the verb, we need to use a reflexive here.

There are however some exceptions to the rules above. Importantly, prepositional phrases which express directions or locations occur outside the domain of a clause. It does not matter what the preposition is. It just matters whether the prepositional phrase expresses a location. Consider the following sentences:

  • She kept him by her.
  • She went there by herself.

In the first example, by her tells us about the location or vicinity of him. Because this is a locative expression by her falls outside of the domain of the clause. In the second sentence we also have a preposition phrase with by. However, this time the expression is not telling us about any kind of location or direction, and so we do need a reflexive pronoun here.

The Original Poster's example

  • She told him good bye and shut the door behind her.

In this example she and her could be thought of as being in different clauses:

  • [She told him good bye] and [shut the door behind her].

However, this is not the reason why we don't need a reflexive. The unexpressed subject of shut is still 'she'. We could think of these as being a co-ordination of verb phrases:

  • She [told him good bye] and [shut the door behind her].

In this reading the actual word she is the grammatical subject of both clauses.

The reason we do not need a reflexive here is that behind her is a locative prepositional phrase and therefore falls outside of the domain of the clause. Because it is not in the same domain, we do not need a reflexive.

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    Nice answer. However, there's one thing that bugs me. The claim that a locational PP is out of the domain of a sentence seems a bit arbitrary. Why is that? And more importantly, does that also hold for verbs to which the PP is pretty much a necessary part of the predicate. Like "I went to the mall". Does "to the mall" not belong to the domain (whatever that is)? If no, is there any reason other than random definition? – Emanuel Jan 28 '15 at 13:55
  • @Emanuel Well, it is a descriptive model. We could say that the locative PP occurs within the domain of the clause but is an exception. However, I think "domain" is used because it gives the impression that a certain field of influence as applicable within it. As the locative PP is not subject to this 'influence', in one sense it's clearly not 'in the domain'. With regards to whether the PP is an adjunct or a complement - I don't believe that I've ever read about that. But it does seem to me on reflection that it doesn't seem to apply when the PP is a predicative complement, for example ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 28 '15 at 14:10
  • @Emanuel The description above is pretty general. There are all sorts of specific constructions and special types of verb that buck these rules. If you have access to CaGEL, they give some quite extensive coverage. You could have a look here if you have the patience to navigate through the text! It's pages 1483-1499 :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 28 '15 at 14:14
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    Thanks a lot. I'd accept it but I kind of don't want to take away the "accept" from TRomano. So the up-vote will have to be enough :). Thanks for the link btw. – Emanuel Jan 28 '15 at 14:59
  • I like this answer the most of all of them. It not only answers the questions posed, but it also includes the exception mentioned by TRomano and fully explains when to and why we use the reflexive and exception. If I were the questioner, I would accept this answer foremost. (Also, the fact that I just found out about the incredible CaGEL thanks to you is a factor in that. ;) ) – Jonathan Spirit Jan 28 '15 at 20:32

In your example, only "her" would be used, in my opinion (and in others' also), not "herself"? Why? As Poirot would phrase it, it is a matter most obscure. Several linguists have tried their hand at figuring it out, notably William Cantrall, who wrote a dissertation about it in 1969, a version of which was published as Viewpoint, Reflexives, and the Nature of Noun Phrases, Mouton & Co., The Hague 1974, 178 pp. I don't remember the theory very clearly, and I can't find much about it on line, but I do recall that the examples supporting the theory were remarkable, but the theory itself was rather odd. Whether you use a reflexive is in part determined by whose point of view you take. Very interesting, if true.

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  • Well, that would make reflexivity partly a deictic phenomenon, which is not all that strange nowadays, but certainly was unusual back then. I remember Bill but not his dissertation, alas. – John Lawler Feb 2 '15 at 20:05

I'm going to answer each question in order. To the first question: No, it would be incorrect to use "her" rather than "herself". According to this Wikipedia article, whenever you're using a pronoun as an object and its antecedent is the subject of the clause, you should use the reflexive pronoun. The oblique pronoun would be incorrect.

Two: I feel that using "herself" in this sentence sounds better than using "her", but how something sounds is personal preference and should not be used to define what you actually say.

I'm going to explain the third question, even though it relies on a "yes" answer to your first question:

If "she" shuts the door behind "her", then there's another female in the room and this is not a case of unclear pronoun reference. (At least, as long as whoever is writing the sentence is using grammar exactly correctly.)

Also, like John Lawler says in his recent comment, sometimes informally you might say "Get out of here and shut the door behind you!" The understood subject is you, so if you were being perfectly grammatical, you would have to say "yourself". But speaking informally, at the very least any native speaker would understand.

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  • First of, thanks for your answer!! I've ran a few Google searches for phrases like "he * behind him". Since the results of those are a mix of correct and "false" obliques I then tried "I * behind me". That gives a whole lot of results. Among the main hits is a famous folk song so I excluded the word "girl" from the search. Still a lot of results, some from the King James Bible. That suggests that not using the reflexive is not a result of sloppy modern day colloquial speech. Finally I looked for "I looked behind me" on Google Books and got 107.000 hits. – Emanuel Jan 27 '15 at 21:22
  • Here's the link google.de/… Logically speaking all these should be "myself". So, do the rules only apply to third person? – Emanuel Jan 27 '15 at 21:23
  • Here's another search result I found while I was trying to find something false about the other answer: google.de/… – Emanuel Jan 27 '15 at 21:27
  • @Emanuel First person would be spoken from the perspective of a person. In fact, you could say that an entire book written in first person is dialogue, just without the tags. So it would be subject to the mannerisms of the speaker. But like you say, that suggests that not using the reflexive isn't necessarily informal. Maybe there is in fact an exception like TRomano says. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 27 '15 at 21:50
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    @Araucaria... I think in the last sentence you meant grammati...oh wait, I got it. – Emanuel Jan 28 '15 at 10:28

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