‘We hugged ourselves’ or ‘We hugged one another’: more on pronouns

Function words such as conjunctions, prepositions, determiners and pronouns do not mostly carry propositional values like content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs). Notwithstanding, they serve as the spine of meaning.

The inference is that a wrongly deployed function word can result in loss of meaning and a wrong interpretation of an utterance or a sentence. For instance, ‘The man and his wives…’ has a different meaning from ‘The man, with his wives,…’

The choice of conjunction has a semantic implication.

While ‘and’ is a coordinating conjunction that joins two nouns of equal grammatical importance, ‘with’ is a semi-coordinating conjunction that subordinates the second noun to the first, wherein the first noun to be mentioned determines the verb, in a complete sentence, as seen below:

The man and his wives are here (standard).

The man, with his wives, are here (non-standard).

The man, with his wives, is here (standard).

This implies that when joined by the conjunction ‘with’, the second item is considered as company to the first and should not take part in determining the verb.

Such grammatical details make the mastery of function words sacrosanct for anyone who cares to speak the language fluently and confidently.

I have discussed aspects of pronouns in earlier articles, but this piece will focus on reflexive and reciprocal pronouns and other often mistaken aspects of pronouns.

Reflexive pronouns show that some people have acted on themselves. These pronouns are used when there is no exchange of actions. Reflexive pronouns are himself, herself, itself, yourself, yourselves and themselves, as obtained in the following sentences:

They enjoyed themselves at the theatre.

She spoke highly of herself.

He was speaking to himself.

He sold the car outright for reasons best known to him (non-standard).

He sold the car outright for reasons best known to himself (standard).

These reflexive pronouns also serve as emphatic pronouns. They are called emphatic pronouns when they are used to lay emphasis on the performer of an action. The sentences below show this usage:

The students themselves paid for everything they used.

The celebrant herself served the guests.

He did the work by himself.

The difference between these two pronominal functions is that, while emphatic pronouns are optional and can be removed without distorting the sense of sentences, reflexive pronouns are compulsory for the structures where they are used.

In deploying these pronouns, note that there are no such words as theirselves, hisself, ourself and themself. The letter ‘f’ and the letters ‘ves’ should be appropriately deployed for the singular and plural forms respectively.

The other kind of pronoun is reciprocal pronouns. A reciprocal pronoun indicates that an action is mutual among two or more people. The two reciprocal pronouns in English are ‘each other’ and ‘one another’.

reciprocal pronouns
The two reciprocal pronouns in English are ‘each other’ and ‘one another’

Traditional grammar holds that the former (each other) is used for two persons while the latter (one another) is used for three or more persons, but this distinction is not foregrounded in modern grammar. In fact, both can be used interchangeably in contemporary English. The sentences below show erroneous use of reflexive pronouns, instead of deploying reciprocal pronouns with exactitude:

Dorcas and her mother hugged themselves (non-standard).

Dorcas and her mother hugged each other (standard).

Those children are kicking themselves (non-standard).

Those children are kicking one another (standard).

Read also: Hanged or Hung: Dealing with forms of verbs

It should be mentioned that the substitution of a reflexive pronoun for a reciprocal pronoun could generate a different meaning; hence, the need to master their uses. The examples below show the possibility of this change of meaning:

Titi and Bimpe love themselves. (Titi loves herself; Bimpe loves herself, too.)

Titi and Bimpe love each other/one another. (Titi loves Bimpe; Bimpe loves Titi in return.)

These possible meanings are the major reason anyone must understand clearly how these pronouns should be used. This will prevent us from saying A when we mean B.

Still on pronouns, it is essential to avoid the common error of using a pronoun without the noun it refers to in sight. Such an error is seen in sentences like:

They are calling you.

They said I should call the clerk.

Since the referents of ‘they’ cannot be easily told, it is preferable to use nouns, instead of pronouns, in the sentences above:

The boss is calling you.

The manager said I should call the clerk.

Finally, when you want to refer to someone whose sex is not disclosed, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ are used as singular pronouns after indefinite pronouns like ‘everybody’, ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, or a noun phrase like ‘a student’. This format is permissible in spoken English and is becoming more admissible in written communication:

Everybody should come with their dictionary tomorrow.

If anyone visits Thomas, they will be treated to a sumptuous meal.

Someone has left their wallet in the living room.

If a student gets the highest score in the test, I will gift one thousand naira only to them.

However, this usage does not enjoy prevalence in formal settings. In formal contexts, ‘he or she’, ‘his or her’ and ‘him or her’ replace ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ correspondingly:

Everybody should come with his or her dictionary tomorrow (formal English).

If anyone visits Thomas, he or she will be treated to a sumptuous meal (formal English).

Someone has left his or her wallet in the living room (formal English).

If a student gets the highest score in the test, I will gift one thousand naira only to him or her (formal English).

Pronouns are countable and appear simple, but they are technical lexical items. This piece has shed light on some more confusing aspects of this word class, in addition to earlier articles.