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My colleagues and I are working on something and we have to frequently reference English dictionaries. We use all of them, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge, Longman, the works.

Anyway, we came across reflexive collocations, such as "make yourself understood" in the dictionary. But why wouldn't "oneself" be better than "yourself" and used more frequently in a dictionary, if "oneself" is the impersonal form of it?

What's the difference between using "oneself" and "yourself" in a collocation? Is there a difference when one is used rather than the other?

  • Answers to The Time's crosswords prefer the form 'one's'. This is partly because it is more inclusive. 'Make oneself at home' covers '...make myself at home,' as well as himself, yourself , themselves. So dictionary examples may use the impersonal. But 'oneself' is only uttered by those who are extremely careful how they speak. – Hugh Jul 21 '15 at 2:40
  • @Hugh: I don't do The Times xword very often these days, but I don't recall any such preference. I do The Guardian every day though, and I can't say I see anything like that there. I suppose it's feasible they might be slightly more likely to use one's simply because those letters offer more scope for cryptic wordplay, but I'm sure mostly the choice will be constrained by "crossing letters" in intersecting answers. – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '15 at 3:11
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because in actual usage contexts, one normally says Make yourself at home. I could have said you normally say [blah blah], but that's not even relevant here. OP is simply asking why dictionaries might use one or the other form in definitions, a question which I think has little or no meaning, and certainly has nothing to do with usage in context. – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '15 at 3:17
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    @FumbleFingers While I can somewhat see that this is could be off-topic, isn't it on-topic due to wondering what the difference between the usage of "yourself" and "oneself" in the dictionary is? And context being the dictionary or in a learning atmosphere? This is my first posting and I figured anything related to English, with context to writing and its usage is permitted. – marimk17 Jul 21 '15 at 4:30
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    @Hugh: I haven't been counting your/one's distribution patterns over the years (and decades), obviously! But my gut feel is whereas dictionaries may have shown a slight tendency to switch from one's to yours over time, that's not been reflected in (Guardian, Times, cryptic) crossword puzzles. What I do think is fairly common is (for example) Partridge's Shorter Slang Dictionary definition for push one's luck (Google the highlighted text - it's too long for this comment), where the entry itself uses one's but the example uses your. – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '15 at 14:42
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The children enjoyed themselves/He enjoyed himself/She enjoyed herself.

As the reflexive pronoun has various forms, most dictionaries give the infinitive in the form "to enjoy oneself". This is the usual way. "to enjoy yourself" is not correct as "yourself" refers to "you" and the dictionary form "to enjoy" has no personal pronoun to refer to.

The reflexive pronoun to it is itself. The cat lay on the sofa, washing itself.

The reflexive pronoun to one (general personal pronoun) is oneself, formal. Longman DCE: It is only through study that one really begins to know oneself.

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I can think of three ways to use the second person reflexive.

  • The first is to address someone else. You might be disgusted with a friend and say

How can you live with yourself?

  • The second is the third person indeterminate, in which the pronoun doesn't refer to any one particular person. So you might read an ad that says

You will have yourself a wonderful time on our four day, two night cruise to Santo Diablo.

This is in the second person, but they're clearly not talking to you because you're too smart to travel to some place called Santo Diablo. It's a substitute for the third person, which sounds stilted: "One will have himself a wonderful time."

  • Thirdly and occasionally, an author will use second person narrative. Off the top of my head, the only example I can think of is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney:

You see yourself as the kind of guy who wakes up early on Sunday morning and steps out to cop the Times and croissants.

That's the protagonist of the story talking about himself, and it's a detached way of speaking in the first person.

Few people would think either that dictionary entries are for them alone or that a dictionary has a narrator, so the third person indeterminate is unlikely to confuse.

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The use of oneself or yourself depends upon the author's distance from the audience. If the author's intent is to be close to the audience, make it personal, she would use yourself. If the author wants distance, to keep things impersonal and objective, she would use oneself.

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