One’s self or oneself? The correct word or phrase depends on the context.
Let’s begin with a trick question. Do you know which is the correct way to write a reflexive pronoun derived from “one” that acts as a subject? Is it oneself or one’s self? Of course, it’s “oneself.” But it doesn’t mean that using "one's self" is always incorrect. It simply means something else, completely.
The definition of oneself
Oneself is a reflexive form of the indefinite pronoun “one.” Just like “myself” is derived from “me” and “yourself” from “you,” “oneself” is derived from “one.” It’s a neutral form that enables talking about some general truths or opinions in sentences with a hypothetical subject.
Here are some examples:
One has to find the definition of happiness for oneself.
Providing food and necessities for oneself should not be hard.
One should ask oneself some difficult questions.
We also use constructions like “doing something oneself” when we want to state that someone can do something alone, without anyone’s help.
It’s hard to build a house oneself, but it is nevertheless possible.
Oneself vs. One’s self
As we’ve just seen, “oneself” is a reflexive pronoun. And what about “one’s self”? “One” is still a pronoun, and “self” can also act as a pronoun, but in this particular case, “self” is a noun that means “character”, “personality”, or “identity”.
The difference between oneself and one’s self is not just a matter of grammar. The meaning is different. While “oneself” means that someone does something to or for themselves, “one’s self” refers to the “self” that belongs to “one.”
Let’s look at some examples:
Staying true to one’s self is hard in these challenging times.
Defining one’s self is hard.
Some people believe that one’s success depends on one’s self.
In these examples, if we replace the word “self” with the word “character” or “identity”, the meaning will remain the same.
We can use phrases like “one’s inner self” when talking about personality, or “one’s sense of self” when discussing the idea of self-consciousness.
Oneself and one’s self in the same sentence
Sentences that contain both “oneself” or “one’s self” are excessively formal and, as such, very unusual. They can also be puzzling. You can use them in the same sentence:
Thinking about oneself may improve one’s self.
Today, in an informal context, we would probably say this differently: Thinking about yourself can improve your character.
There are also examples where we can use either “oneself” or “one’s self” and both would be correct, but the meaning would be slightly different.
Being in love with oneself is quite widespread today.
Being in love with one’s self is quite widespread today.
In the first sentence, the hypothetical person is in love with themselves, with the emphasis on a physical appearance. In the second, this person is in love with their inner “self” in a deeper, philosophical sense.