Lesson #161: Intensive and Reflexive Pronouns Illustrated through Charles Dickens’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’

📙 Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone so long! The little bustling, active, cheerful creature existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidante of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse.

– Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

The passage above describes a sprightly, lively little woman called Miss La Creevy in Charles Dickens’ early novel Nicholas Nickleby. It is one of Dickens’ lesser-known novels, and yet it was very influential in its time. It raised awareness of the systemic abuse that was taking place in many industrial schools in Yorkshire, and galvanising (shock or excite to take action) public support to eventually ban (make illegal) such schools. 

As the above quoted passage shows, Miss La Creevy is a woman who has lived alone and makes her living in an unusual way (for women in nineteenth-century Britain) – as a portrait painter. So in describing her resilient, self-sufficient approach to life, Dickens draws on many instances of the personal reflexive pronoun.

What are intensive pronouns, and what are reflexive pronouns?

⚠️ This is one of the most important lessons I have written, since the topic of intensive and reflexive pronouns is often wrongly taught, and students are left puzzled as to when they can use the intensive pronoun in particular. I offer here some typical, real-life scenarios where you would use both types of pronouns.

Firstly, even though they have different functions, it is worth noting that they are essentially written in the same way:

  • myself
  • yourself
  • himself
  • herself
  • itself
  • ourselves
  • yourselves
  • themselves

Now that we have these before us, let us look at what intensive pronouns and reflexive pronouns are individually, before we compare how they are used differently.

INTENSIVE PRONOUNS

🖋️ An intensive pronoun is a personal pronoun that emphasises the subject that preceded it. For example, ‘Did you build the website yourself?’ or ‘They did the homework themselves without any help from the teacher.’

Intensive pronouns often directly follow the subject they are qualifying: e.g. ‘She herself saw that it was no use in talking further.’

❗ As a language tutor, I would not recommend the examples of intensive pronouns in English that can be found in free online sources, because most of them sound very unnatural, and many are actually wrong! No English speaker would say ‘Sophie wanted herself to find light out of her darkness’ – it is an incorrect statement, like many of the examples you find online. ❌

Which is why we turn to classic literature! Here are some good examples from the pages of Nicholas Nickleby, all expressed in a context that makes sense and can be used by the modern reader too:

EXPRESSIONS OF PRIDE OR ACCOMPLISHMENT

📙 ‘… Miss Squeers was not long in arriving at the conclusion that the new usher must be a very remarkable person, or, as she herself significantly phrased it, ‘something quite out of the common.’’  

– Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

By writing ‘she herself significantly phrased it’, Dickens is emphasisng that Miss Squeers expressed herself ‘significantly’ – she didn’t need anyone’s suggestions to help her express her own independent thoughts. 

When intensive pronouns like ‘herself’ or ‘myself’ are followed by a verb that denotes speaking, expressing, describing, or doing, etc., there is often a sense that the subject is proud of what they said or did. For example, ‘the boy himself made the tea and baked the cake’ – he was able to do something on his own of which he should be proud. Sometimes it can also be expressed with ‘by himself’. 

So to return to the quotation above, Miss Squeers is proud of the way she expressed herself.

EXPESSIONS OF WONDER, DOUBT, OR CONSCIOUSNESS

📙 ‘… Newman was equally at a loss to determine whether he himself was quite sober, and whether he had ever seen any gentleman so heavily, drowsily, and completely intoxicated as his new acquaintance.’

 – Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

This is an excellent example of the intensive pronoun ‘in real action’, since it often accompanies verbs that express wonder, doubt, or some kind of awareness. Newman here is wondering and not sure (‘at a loss to determine’) whether or not he himself – nobody else – is sober or drunk.

EXPRESSIONS OF PROMISE OR ASSERTIVENESS

📙 ‘I myself, avowing to her father from whom I come and by whom I am commissioned, will render it an act of greater baseness, meanness, and cruelty in him if he still dares to force this marriage on.’

 – Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

Here the intensive pronoun is used with the verbs ‘avow’ (promise, take an oath, swear to speak the truth) and ‘render’ (deem, judge).  Just as verbs that express wonder or some awareness often involve an intensive pronoun, so do verbs that express promises, oaths, or anything else that is assertive. Nicholas, the speaker, is taking an oath on his own honour and saying that he would deem a forced marriage to be a ‘cruelty’. In other words, Nicholas is being both forceful and personal, for which the intensive pronoun is perfect.

REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS

🖋️ A reflexive pronoun is a personal pronoun that describes the object in a sentence (who/which also happens to be the subject too). For example, ‘Mrs Nickleby told herself not to worry.’

The verbs that are seen accompanying reflexive pronouns are always transitive verbs, that is, they require an object to receive the action that the subject initiates. 

When you see a personal pronoun like ‘yourself’ or ‘themselves’, ask yourself the question: for whom or to whom is the verb’s action being done? 

🖋️ If it clearly refers to the object of a sentence, rather than emphasising the subject itself as a singular entity, it is a reflexive pronoun.

Some more examples from Dickens’ classic:

📙 ‘The little bustling, active, cheerful creature existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidante of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm.’

 – Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

✏️ ‘[she] existed … within herself’: As the preposition ‘within’ requires an object to make sense, this instance of ‘herself’ is reflexive.

✏️ ‘talked to herself’: The woman who is doing the talking (subject) and the woman who is being talked to (object) are the same person (Miss La Creevy). Grammatically speaking, whenever the subject and object refer to the same entity, the pronoun is reflexive.

✏️ ‘made a confidant of herself’: ‘Herself’ here again is an object, receiving the confiding action of the subject, even though they are the same person. Again, another instance of the reflexive pronoun. 

✏️ ‘pleased herself’: In other words, ‘herself’ was pleased, ‘herself’ received the action of being pleased, and so is another reflexive pronoun.

Here is another sentence from Nicholas Nickleby, using a very common short phrase in English, ‘in spite of [OBJECT, especially a REFLEXIVE PRONOUN]’:

📙 ‘If that is all you want,’ said Nicholas, pointing to the pen, and smiling, in spite of himself, at the affected embarrassment of the schoolmaster’s daughter, ‘perhaps I can supply his place.’

 – Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

✏️‘in spite of himself’: ‘In spite of’ or ‘despite’ (a synonym) both require an object to make sense. 

Advanced English tip: 💡 You could write the sentence differently by substituting another object in place of ‘himself’, but you might need to add a noun, gerund, or verbal phrase of some kind to highlight that this object is a different person from the sentence’s subject (e.g. Nicholas, pointing to the pen, and smiling, in spite of the schoolmaster’s watching him closely …)

INTENSIVE PRONOUNS VS. REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS 

You may be wondering how to identify one type of pronoun from the other. Here is a tip that will help you to recognise the differences:

✒️ Try removing the pronoun. Does the sentence still make sense without it? 

If it does, it shows that it is an intensive pronoun that simply emphasises the subject that is there. But if the sentence no longer makes sense without it, then it is clear that the pronoun is an object, and so a reflexive one. 

To make sure you fully understand the difference between the two types, we will end with a very short test (answers provided below):

1) The lady herself bought a painting from Miss La Creevy.

2) The lady bought herself a painting from Miss La Creevy.

What pronoun types are found in these sentences? 

Answers:

1) Intensive pronoun

2) Reflexive pronoun

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)