A contrastive Analysis of Reflexive Pronouns in English and Vietnamese

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HCMC University of Pedagogy

English Department

A Contrastive Analysis of Reflexive Pronouns

in English and Vietnamese

Instructor: Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu

Student: Nguyen Dang Quang Vinh

Class: 4B07


December 2010

How do you feel about these sentences?

  • Mr. John is looking at Mr. John in the mirror.

  • My friends asked my friends where their car was.

  • The black dog hurt the black dog when playing in the yard.

Strange? Odd? Or abnormal? It’s easy to understand if you feel so because we hardly ever see that kind of sentences in our life.

Actually, those sentences are grammatically correct, but normally we don’t use them when we have to express the same ideas. What is the problem here? The repetition of subjects in the place of objects? If you say so, then let’s try another way:

  • Mr. John is looking at him in the mirror.

  • My friends asked them where their car was.

  • The black dog hurt it when playing in the yard.

In this case, we replace the underlined words with appropriate personal pronouns to avoid repetition. However, there’s still something that doesn’t seem right. Who is “him” in the first sentence, for example? Mr. John? Or another man that we don’t know yet? It looks like those personal pronouns are not suitable enough. We need another kind of pronouns to use in this situation. Another one, like REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS.

What are reflexive pronouns?

“A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that is preceded by the noun or pronoun to which it refers (its antecedent) within the same clause.” In another word, a reflexive pronoun is used when we want to refer back to the subject of the sentence or clause.

In English, when talking about reflexive pronouns, we talk about the words myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves and oneself. Therefore, with the sentences above, they should be:

  • Mr. John is looking at himself in the mirror.

  • My friends asked themselves where their car was.

  • The black dog hurt itself when playing in the yard.

So, what are reflexive pronouns in Vietnamese?

Actually, Vietnamese doesn’t have anything exactly the same as reflexive pronouns in English. However, to express the same thing, we can add some special words like “tự”, “chính” or “chính mình”. These words are neccessary when we want to refer back to the subject of the sentence or clause, beside repetition method.

  • Ông John đang nhìn vào chính mình trong gương.

  • Bạn tôi tự hỏi xe của họ đâu rồi.

  • Con chó mực làm đau chính nó khi đang chơi đùa trong sân.

How to form reflexive pronouns?

In English, a reflexive pronoun is formed when we add the suffix “-self” or “-selves” to the possessive adjective (for the first-person and second-person) or personal pronoun (for the third-person). We have to distinguish between singular pronouns and plural pronouns: singular reflexive pronouns end with “-self” while plural reflexvie pronouns end with “-selves”. We also have to pay attention to the personal pronoun “you” because this one has both singular and plural meaning.

All of those things are summerized in the table below:




Possessive Adjective










































For examples:

  • The stuntman cut himself on some broken glass.

  • We gave ourselves a second chance to complete this course.

Beside definite pronouns, there are indefinite pronouns. However, only the definite pronoun “one” has its own reflexive form – “oneself”. The other indefinite pronouns use either “himself” or “themselves” as their reflexives.

  • One must have faith in oneself.

  • Noone should blame himself/themselves for what happend.

It seems that there are a lot of things to remember when it comes to reflexive pronouns. Right?

Actually, these things just happen in English. We may find it easier to use Vietnamese when expressing those things. Obviously, we don’t have to care if the subject is singular or plural. We don’t have to choose the exact reflexive pronoun for each subject. In most of the situations, we just need to add some words like “tự”, “tự thân”, “chính” or “chính mình” in the right position, and that’s all.

  • Nam diễn viên đóng thế khiến chính mình bị thương bằng những mẩu kính vỡ.

  • Chúng tôi tự cho mình cơ hội thứ hai để hoàn tất khóa học này.

  • Mỗi người phải có lòng tin vào chính mình.

  • Không ai nên để lỗi cho chính mình về chuyện đã xảy ra.

That’s a big difference between Vietnamese and English.

How to use reflexive pronouns?

According to the materials I have studied, there are three main cases in which reflexive pronouns are used.

Case 1: When the subject and object are the same

Take a look back to the example at the beginning.

  • Mr. John is looking at Mr. John in the mirror.


  • Mr. John is looking at him in the mirror.

Like I said earlier in this essay, those sentences are grammartically correct. But they are very confusing in meaning. Who is the first Mr. John? And who is the second Mr. John (or him)? Are they the same? Or they are two different people? We don’t know. The underlined words make the sentences too ambiguious. If the two Mr. John in the sentence above are the same person, surely we should use reflexive pronoun to convey that.

  • Mr. John is looking at himself in the mirror.

So in this kind of situations, reflexive pronouns are used as the object of the verb (or the preposition) to infer that the object is the same person or thing as the subject in the same sentence or clause.

  • He introduced himself to her and asked her to dance with him.

  • Tell me something about yourself.

Things are completely different in Vietnamese. What we have to do is just add some words such as “chính”, “chính mình”, “bản thân” or “tự” in the appropriate position of these sentences.

  • Anh ta tự giới thiệu với cô ấy và mời cô ấy khiêu vũ với mình.

  • Hãy nói tôi nghe đôi điều về bản thân bạn.

Case 2: After the preposition “by”

In order to say that someone is alone or someone does something without any help of other people, we can also use reflexive pronouns with the preposition “by”.

  • She went to the theatre by herself.

  • He was there for two months by himself.

In Vietnamese, with this kind of situations, we still can add some words like “tự thân”, “tự mình” to express the same ideas, but normally “một mình” seems to be the best word to use.

  • Cô ấy đi tới rạp chiếu bóng một mình.

  • Anh ta đã ở đó một mình trong hai tháng.

Case 3: For emphasis

In this kind of situations, we use reflexive pronouns right after nouns or pronouns to emphasize the person or thing that we are referring to. It’s still ok if we don’t use them. But if the speaker wants to confirm what he or she is saying, this is one of the best ways to do.

  • The actors themselves made the stunts in the movie.

  • I myself have prepared everything for our presentation.

In Vietnamese, the word “chính” is likely to be used in front of the main subjects to emphasize what the speaker says.

  • Chính các diễn viên đã thực hiện những pha mạo hiểm trong phim.

  • Chính tôi đã chuẩn bị mọi thứ cho bài thuyết trình của chúng ta.

Teaching application

When we teach Vietnamese students about reflexive pronouns, it would be better if we can compare and contrast the reflexive pronouns in English with the corresponding means in Vietnamese. Why?

Beside the fact that Vietnamese is the students’ mother tongue, it is much easier when we can explain from the point of Vietnamese grammar. It’s very simple when we want to refer back to the subject of the sentence by adding some special words like “chính mình”, “tự thân”... Compared to that, English grammar require us to idenify what the subject is, whether it is singular or plural... There are a lot of things to do before we can get it right.

Moreover, it would be better if we can define three cases when using reflexive pronouns:

  1. After verbs or prepositions when subject and object are the same.

  2. After the preposition “by” to mean “alone” or “without cooperation”.

  3. After the subject or at the end of sentence to emphasize.

In this way, the lesson would be easier to follow and close to the reality. Of course we have to present some corresponding means in Vietnamese to show some similarities. This will make students more interested in what they are learning.

We should also pay attention to the way reflexive pronouns are formed. We shouldn’t let any misunderstanding happen such as using “meself”, “youself”, “hisself”, “theirselves”... instead of “myself”, “yourself”, “himself”, “themselves”... That’s not good.

If we can help our students be able to combine their knowledge in two languages but still know how to distinguish between them, they will acquire the two languages more accurately and effectively.

Reflexive pronoun. (2010, November 15). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflexive_pronoun

Pronouns. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2010, from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/pronouns1.htm

Reflexive pronouns. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2010, from http://www.testyourenglish.net/english-online/subjects/refpron.html

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