Reflexive verbs

1 The reflexive pronouns (see pronouns) are:

Singular: myself; yourself; himself; herself; itself
Plural: ourselves; yourselves; themselves

We use a reflexive pronoun after a transitive verb (see Clauses, Sentences and Phrases) when the direct object is the same as the subject of the verb:

I am teaching myself to play the piano.
Be careful with that knife. You might cut yourself.

These are the verbs most often found with reflexive pronouns:

  • cut
  • dry
  • enjoy
  • hurt
  • introduce
  • kill
  • prepare
  • teach

Some verbs change their meaning slightly when they have a reflexive pronoun as direct object:

  • amuse
  • apply
  • busy
  • content
  • behave
  • blame
  • distance
  • express
  • find
  • help
  • see
Would you like to help yourself to another drink? = Would you like to take another drink?
I wish the children would behave themselves. = I wish the children would behave well.
He found himself lying by the side of the road. = He was surprised when he realised that he was at the side of the road.
I saw myself as a famous actor. = I imagined that I was a famous actor.
She applied herself to the job of mending the lights. = She worked very hard to mend the lights.
He busied himself in the kitchen. = He worked busily in the kitchen.
I had to content myself with a few Euros. = I had to be satisfied with a few Euros.

The verb enjoy always has an object:

We all enjoyed the party.
I really enjoyed my lunch.

If enjoy has no other object, we use a reflexive pronoun:

They all enjoyed  They all enjoyed themselves.
I really enjoyed  I really enjoyed myself.

NOTE: We do not use a reflexive pronoun after verbs which describe things people usually do for themselves:

He washed in cold water.
He always shaved before going out in the evening.
Michael dressed and got ready for the party.

We only use reflexives with these verbs for emphasis:

He dressed himself in spite of his injuries.
She’s old enough to wash herself.

Ergative verbs

1. Ergative verbs are both transitive and intransitive:

Peter closed the door   Transitive: N + V + N
The door closed   Intransitive: N + V
I boiled a pan of water   Transitive: N + V + N
The pan boiled   Intransitive: N + V

2. Common ergative verbs are:

  • begin
  • break
  • change
  • close
  • drop
  • crack
  • dry
  • end
  • finish
  • grow
  • improve
  • increase
  • move
  • open
  • shake
  • start
  • stop
  • tear
  • turn

I broke the glass.
I dropped the glass and it broke.

The referee blew his whistle and started the match.
The match started at 2.30.

We grew some tasty potatoes.
The potatoes were growing well.

The wind shook the trees.
The trees shook in the wind.

3. Many verbs to do with cooking are ergative verbs:

  • bake
  • boil
  • cook
  • defrost
  • freeze
  • melt
  • roast

You should roast the meat at 200 degrees centigrade.
The meat was roasting in a hot oven.

I always defrost meat before I cook it.
I am waiting for the meat to defrost.

Melt the chocolate and pour it over the ice cream.
The chocolate was melting in a pan.

4. Verbs to do with vehicles are often ergative:

  • back
  • crash
  • drive
  • fly
  • reverse
  • run
  • sail
  • start
  • stop

I’m learning to fly a plane.
The plane flew at twice the speed of sound.

He crashed his car into a tree.
His car crashed into a tree.

5. We use some ergative verbs with only a few nouns:

  • catch: dress, coat, clothes, trousers etc.
  • fire : Gun, pistol, rifle, rocket.
  • play: guitar, music, piano, violin, CD, DVD etc.
  • ring: bell, alarm

She caught her dress on a nail.
Her dress caught on a nail.

He fired a pistol to start the race.
A pistol fired to start the race.




Hello sir,
What's the meaning of this,
What was done is done.
(My confusion is structure)
Thank you.

Hello dlis,

This means that 'the thing that was done' ('what was done') has been done or is finished. 'What was done' is a cleft structure and 'is done' is the verb plus a past participle being used as an adjective.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Team.
Could you help me to make a example with the reflexive pronoun 'yourselves', please? I'm quite difficult to find it.

Good evening,
I still have some problems with reflexive pronouns when the subject is "a person", "an individual", or something like that. In the following sentence, for example, what would the correct option be?
"to be an individual who fulfills themselves/himself-herself/oneseself"
Thank you in advance for your help.

Hello James1981Sar,

'An individual' is a non-specific in terms of gender and the standard pronoun to use in such cases is 'them' rather than 'he or she'. Therefore we would normally say 'to be an individual who fulfills themselves'.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Can an intransitive verb take reflexive pronoun as its object?

For example:
1. They sat them down.
2. Vaulting ambition which o'er leaps itself. --- Shakespeare

In the above examples, though the verbs are intransitive, they are taking objects with them.

Is there any exception under which an intransitive verb can have its object?

Hello arafatmgr,

The verb 'sit' can be both transitive and intransitive – see its entry in the Cambridge Dictionary – and in the sentence you ask about it, it is transitive. 'them' is not a reflexive pronoun, but rather an object pronoun. But even with the reflexive pronoun 'themselves', it would still be a transitive verb because it has 'themselves' as an object.

'leap' is an intransitive verb in modern English. I'm not completely sure, but I'd say that here it is as well. 'over itself' is adverbial rather than an object, I'd say, though I'd have to check with a specialist in syntax to confirm that.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Sir,
I have confusion about the Ergative verb when it's used without object. For example, 'a gun fired' what does it mean and is the verb in past tense and is it in active voice which means a gun fired by itself?
I always think that it should be rewritten as 'a gun is fired' which is a passive voice since obviously the gun cannot pull the trigger by itself but someone else. Also can I rewrite it as 'a gun fired by someone' and would this be grammatically correct? And what is the difference between 'a gun fired' and 'a gun is fired'

The second example i confused about is 'I'm waiting for the meat to defrost'. Again I would always say that 'I'm waiting for the meat to be defrosted' as I think that some action must be done to the meat for it to defrost which sounds more like passive.

Could you please point out my mistake above as I couldn't figure it out? Thank you very much

Hi Hugong,

Words are used in different ways to express ideas. It is quite correct to say both 'a gun was fired' (meaning a person did it) and 'a gun fired' (meaning that it happened, but without information about how). THe second formulation is particularly useful, for example, when someone drops a gun and the impact causes it to fire, but it can be used in 'normal' contexts too.

The key is that we often attribute agency to objects, even though they are really not capable of it. For example, if a person has problems with their car then they might say 'My car doesn't want to start' or 'My car refuses to start'. Obviously, the car is a machine which has no desires or feelings, but we describe it in this way. Language is colourful and creative, but not always entirely logical, I'm afraid.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team 

Hi Peter
Thanks for your quick response. Now I understand the logic - " language is colourful but not always logical" totally agree.

But just one more question. Is the form "a gun fired" is an ellipses form of "a gun is fired" where "is" is understood and is omitted? Or it's just a completely different sentence structure?

And is it correct to say "a gun fired by someone" to add in the agent part? (I know it can be done with passive voice)