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Spotting the difference between reflexive and emphatic pronouns

By Alexander Chagema | Published Mon, June 11th 2018 at 19:16, Updated June 11th 2018 at 19:23 GMT +3

A slip of the tongue is a common hazard in speech. Interestingly, depending on one’s level of excitement or agitation, the co-ordination between the brain and the tongue sometimes falters. Words get rushed, the order of words gets mangled, or the brain tricks the tongue into attempting to utter two words simultaneously. It is a phenomenon I seek to understand.

However, there are times when we blunder by speaking ‘mechanically’. It happens whenever we stop being ‘conscious’ of our utterances. This is evident every time a speaker repeats a mistake without realising it.

Last week, a building collapsed in Huruma, Nairobi, and three people were killed. Apprising us of the developments, a journalist said: “We are trying to establish whether some people are still trapped in those rubbles” before proceeding to say “Electricity has been shut down”.

These statements were repeated at least four times, and that eliminated the possibility of a slip of the tongue.

Rubble is defined as “waste or rough fragments of stone, brick, concrete, especially as the debris from the demolition of buildings”. Having specified ‘fragments’ and ‘debris’, rubble does not assume the plural form, it remains singular. The determiner ‘the’ often precedes references to ‘rubble’, hence: “We are trying to establish whether some people are still trapped in the rubble.”

Three words

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The existence of the words ‘rabble’ and ‘rouble’ once in a while confuses the unwary. The first, rabble refers to the lowest class of people (we call them street families, beggars etc) while ‘rouble’ is the monetary unit of Russia. In speech, the three words, although spelled differently, sound almost the same.

One can ‘shut down’ a school, as happened with Moi Girls School Nairobi after a student was reportedly raped. One can also ‘shut’ down’ a plant as happened with a giant sugar miller in Kisumu County, because to ‘shut’ is to halt operations, to close, cease production or come to a halt. A firm that faces bankruptcy would shut down when meeting operational costs becomes difficult. Electricity used in any building cannot, therefore, be ‘shut down’; its supply can only be interrupted by ‘switching off’,  ‘turning off’ or ‘disconnecting’.

Let us now consider the word ‘we’, often employed by news teams as a collective. To use ‘I’ and ‘my’ when news gathering is clearly a team effort would be selfish. As with the words ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘it’, ‘one’ and ‘they’, ‘we’ and ‘I’ are personal pronouns. When these pronouns are written as ‘yourself’, ‘himself’, ‘itself’, ‘oneself’ ‘themselves’ and so on, they become either reflexive (reflective) or emphatic pronouns.

They are called reflexive when they become the object of the verb, for example, “He hit himself” and ‘emphatic’ when they emphasise a noun, pronoun or an action taken by one. For example, “The house itself is not big”, ‘I myself did the repairs on my jalopy.” The noun ‘house’ is emphasised by the emphatic pronoun ‘itself’ and the action of ‘repair’ is also being emphasised by ‘myself’.

Easy way

But while reflexive and emphatic pronouns are basically the same, there is an easy way of telling them apart by their position or prominence in a sentence. In a way, emphatic pronouns are more like ‘redundant’ words as explained last week, because their removal from a sentence does not alter the meaning of a sentence. For example, “I myself saw to it that justice was dispensed.” The sentence will retain its meaning even if the word ‘myself’ is taken out of it.

However, the same rule does not apply to reflexive pronouns. While the sentence “she hurt herself on a tree stump last night” makes sense, taking out the reflexive pronoun ‘herself’ leaves it without logic: “She hurt on a tree stump last night.” Another notable thing is that reflexive pronouns are applicable to animate things. You cannot say, “The car door shut itself.” It is you, the human being, that takes the action of shutting the car door.

Emphatic pronouns are permissible where, say, something to be undertaken is not specific to an individual, either in a group, house or school. When, therefore, one says, “I will clean the vomit myself”, it emphasises that whoever is being referred to makes it his business to do what is needed, perhaps because it is an imperative or others who should ideally undertake the task (maybe a nurse or a housemaid) are showing reluctance or have flatly refused to do it.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard; [email protected]


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