Long-distance reflexives are a phenomenon in which a reflexive pronoun (a pronoun, such as herself, that ends with -self or -selves) can refer back to a noun phrase that, in standard English, would be too far away to be referred to by the reflexive pronoun. An example of a long-distance reflexive is himself in (1), which is taken from Loss (2011c):
1) Johni said that [my behavior harmed himselfi].
Sentence (1) is not acceptable in standard English because himself is too far away from John to refer to John; to make it an acceptable sentence for standard English, himself would have to be changed to him. However, (1) is perfectly acceptable for those English speakers who use long-distance reflexives.
For a more rigorous definition of long-distance reflexives, a few technical terms are required. First, the relation between a pronoun and the noun phrase it refers to is called coreference. A noun and pronoun are coreferential when they refer to the same individual. This relationship is indicated by subscripts: If two words have the same subscript, then they are coreferential. For example, Amanda and herself are coreferential in (2a), so they both have a subscript j, whereas Jennifer and herself are coreferential in (2b), so they both have a subscript i:
2) a. Jenniferi said that [Amandaj likes herselfj].
b. *Jenniferi said that [Amandaj likes herselfi].
The other important term is a reflexive's local domain, which roughly corresponds to the smallest clause containing the reflexive. The domain is important because, in standard English, a reflexive can only be coreferential with a noun phrase inside its domain (but see Related Phenomena below). The domain is indicated by brackets; for example, in (2a) and (2b), the domain of herself is Amanda likes herself.
Using this terminology, a long-distance reflexive can be defined as a reflexive that is coreferential with a noun phrase outside the reflexive's domain. For example, herself in (2b) is a long-distance reflexive because it is coreferential with Jennifer, a noun phrase outside the domain of herself. Meanwhile, herself in (2a) is not long-distance because it is coreferential with Amanda, a noun phrase inside the domain of herself.
The information about this construction is preliminary since it comes from a single dissertation (Loss 2011c) and subsequent publications (Loss 2011a, Loss 2011b, Loss 2014).
Who says this?
This construction is found (at least) on the Mesabi and Vermillion Iron Ranges of the northern Arrowhead region of Minnesota (Underwood 1981, Linn 1988).
There may be sociolinguistic factors to the distribution of the construction. In particular, women are more likely than men to accept sentences with long-distance reflexives.
The following description of the syntactic distribution of Iron Range English long-distance reflexive pronouns is derived from Loss (2011c):
Iron Range English reflexive pronouns can corefer with a nominal expression in the higher clause that is in the subject position, like Jennifer in (3), or object position, like Amanda in (3):
3) Jenniferi told Amandaj that [Jillk likes herselfi/j/k].
The reflexive cannot corefer with a noun or noun phrase in the higher clause when there is an intervening noun or noun phrase in subject position that has a different person than the reflexive (similar to Blocking Effects in Mandarin Chinese (Huang (1984) and subsequent research). For example, (4a) is acceptable because herself and the intervening subjects (Amanda and Jill) are all third person, but (4b) and (4c) are not acceptable because herself has a different person than I in (4b) and you in (4c):
4) a. Jenniferi said that [Amanda knows that [Jill likes herselfi]].
b. *Jenniferi said that [I know that [Jill likes herselfi]].
c. *Jenniferi said that [you know that [Jill likes herselfi]].
An intervening subject that does not match in number or gender does not prevent the reflexive from coreferring with a nominal expression outside its local domain. Thus, (5a) is acceptable even though they has a different number than herself, and (5b) is acceptable even though Tom has a different gender than herself:
5) a. Jenniferi said that [they know that [Jill likes herselfi]].
b. Jenniferi said that [Tom knows that [Jill likes herselfi]].
In order to prevent the reflexive from coreferring with a noun/noun phrase outside its domain, an intervening noun or noun phrase must be in the subject position. Objects and possessors that do not match the reflexive for person do not prevent a long-distance interpretation of the reflexive. Thus, in contrast to (4b) and (4c), (6a) and (6b) are acceptable:
6) a. Jenniferi told me that [Jill likes herselfi]].
b. Jenniferi said that [my behavior harmed herselfi]].
When a reflexive pronoun is in an island, it cannot corefer with a nominal expression outside its local domain. (Islands are indicated the by subscript I). Thus, (7a) is only acceptable if herself is coreferential with Amanda, and (7b) is only acceptable if herself is coreferential with who:
7) a. Jenniferi made [I the claim that Amandaj likes herself*i/j].
b. Jenniferi wonders [I whoj likes herself*i/j].
Although this page discusses a specific phenomenon in Iron Range English, long-distance reflexives are also possible in Standard English, albeit in a much more restricted set of contexts.
For example, sentences like (9), where the reflexive follows but, are acceptable to most if not all speakers of standard American English, whereas its counterpart without but, sentence (8), is not:
8) Johni said that [my behavior harmed himselfi]. (Iron Range English only)
9) John i said that [my behavior would harm no one but himselfi]. (Standard and Iron Range English)
Standard English also allows long-distance reflexives in other constructions in which the reflexive is not the direct object of the verb, like those in (10). Sentences like (9) and (10) are much more widely studied than those like (8) &em; see Zribi-Hertz (1989), Safir (1992), Baker (1995), and Konig and Siemund (2000).
10) a. Johni thinks that [Mary is taller than/as tall as him(self)i].
b. Juriesi generally don’t hate people who look like themselvesi.
(Compelling Evidence by Steve Martini, 1992:249)
Thus, the existence of long-distance reflexives in Iron Range English is not remarkable — rather, it is their broad distribution that differs from standard English.
Page contributed by Sarah Loss on November 14, 2016.
Updates/revisions: July 2, 2018 (Katie Martin)
Please cite this page as: Loss, Sarah. 2016. Long-distance reflexives. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/long-distance-reflexives. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD). Updated by Katie Martin (2018).