Reflective - reflexive

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These two terms are both derived from the Latin verb reflectere, 'to bend back' - they are cognate words, which have diverged in their usage in Present-day English. (In older forms of English, before spelling was standardized, the two words were interchangeable.)

  • Reflective is the more general word. Students in Higher Education may particularly want two particular senses:
    • describing the action of the verb 'to reflect', principally of light, as in a mirror, or other reflective surface, like polished wood. This can be extended to the reflection, or 'bouncing' of other things, like waves from a wall or surface, for example in a wave tank; a shiny, or light-coloured, surface can reflect heat; figuratively, someone can reflect the mood of an interlocutor.
    • Describing a mental action: that of 'considering deeply', of 'thinking about'. Students, for example, may be asked to produce reflective writing or a reflective assignment, which should reflect on or upon their learning. The adjective has two senses:
      • reflective as 'thoughtful' or 'meditative';
      • reflective as considering deeply and seriously a particular matter - in Higher Education, commonly the way in which one is learning.
  • Reflexive, which is derived from the past participle of reflectere - reflexus), is nowadays best restricted to grammar. The word labels the phenomenon where two words or phrases in a sentence refer to the same individual person or thing, although in a different grammatical function. This may be best seen in reflexive pronouns like 'myself', which refers to the first person already identified in the sentence, and 'itself'. When we say "She hurt herself", the 'she' and 'herself' identify the same person. The 'She' is the Subject of the sentence, and the 'herself' is its Object. In English, only two word classes can normally be reflexive, reflexive pronouns and reflexive verbs.
Although in former times, this grammatical term could be spelled as both 'reflective' and 'reflexive', modern writers are advised only to use reflexive.
    • less generally, reflexive may be used to describe the action of a physiological reflex: an automatic reaction of the body not under conscious control, as when a cough may be a reflex to the presence of a foreign body in the air passages. (Classically, a doctor may test a patient's reflexes by tapping just below the knee and eliciting a response like a kick.) The better adjective for this is reflex - the noun used epithetically.
      • Reflexology is "The theory that the behaviour of organisms is made up of established patterns of simple or complex reflex responses; the scientific study of reflex action as it affects behaviour" (OED, 1989). It has also come to mean a form of alternative therapy based on massaging the feet.
It may help some speakers of English to point out the different stress patterns of reflex, where the stress falls on the first syllable, 'REE-flex' IPA: /'riː flɛks/, and reflect, where the stress falls on the second syllable: 're-FLECT', IPA: /rɪ 'flɛkt/. Reflective and reflexive are both stressed with the emphasis on the second syllable, IPA: /rɪ 'flɛks ɪv and rɪ 'flɛkt ɪv//.