The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

Though non-standard, or at best less than fully standard, themself is slowly growing in popularity and status; it is used, for example, in Canadian law. There’s no overriding reason to reject it; it’s just a convention we’ve lost, and could regain. Grammatically, themself is no worse than singular they, which is no worse than singular you, which is now (but was not always) judged beyond reproach.

I’ve developed a soft spot for themself, and like seeing it in the wild.* A contemporary example comes courtesy of @jprmercado on Twitter, who shared an image from the new Marvel comic Young Avengers #15. The line: “Now, the one of us who sacrifices themself… the one who stops being human for a good cause… it’s me.” (Writer: Kieron Gillen; artist: Joe Quinones. Bless you, Twitter.)

singular 'themself' in Marvel comic Young Avengers #15 via @jprmercado

It also occurs in China Miéville’s Kraken (a novel I described in a recent post about gender-neutral henchpersons as a darkly comic cephalopod-cult apocalypse romp). Here’s the relevant passage:

The women behind the reception desk stared at her in alarm. “You have to help me,” Marge said. She made herself gabble. “No, listen. Someone here calls themself floodbrother, yeah online. Listen, you have to get them a message.”

It’s an interesting decision. The customary choice would be themselves, or himself because it’s reasonable to provisionally infer male gender from floodbrother (cf. singular they in reference to the Buddha). But Miéville used themself, and why not. It’s easier to say than themselves, especially before another ‘f’; it’s in keeping with Kraken’s shifting selves operating in multiple planes; and its progressiveness fits the writer’s ambition and invention.

Outside fiction themself is creeping up too. A search on Guardian.co.uk returns quite a few hits – several in the ‘Soulmates’ dating section, owing to the frequency of reflexive reference (I’m someone who…; looking for someone who…). It pops up less often in the NYT and BBC, and about once a year on IrishTimes.com, but one of these is from someone who pays close attention to language usage: Lucy Kellaway.

In her original FT article, Kellaway says an authority on elevator etiquette deems it rude to press the call button if someone is already waiting: “To do so shows either that you don’t understand how lifts work, or that you consider the other person too dumb to have pressed the button themself.” Themselves would be the default here, but I’m glad Kellaway went with the unfashionable word. It could do with high-profile adopters.

Be they fictional, factual, or self-narrated, the worlds we deal with are packed with uncertain reference and identities that are complex, mutable, and ultimately self-defined. Peeves be damned: generic themself, with its contained multitudes, can only rise in value.

*

* My fondness for it increased when a commenter on my earlier post called it “stupid, wrong, ungraceful, and unnecessary” and said it would “mutilate the language”. No kidding.

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22 Responses to The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

  1. Leif says:

    Never thought about this word. Lightbulb moment.

  2. I’ve found myself using this sporadically in recent months, especially talking to teenage friends. 10/10 would use again more regularly.

  3. Yvonne says:

    Yes, there are definitely instances where the use of ‘themself’ is appreciated. In the comic, “one of us who sacrifices themself” it gender neutral and without complications of distinguishing him/herself within the text. Thank you for acknowledging and justifying the use of this word.

  4. Roger says:

    Re the semantic gap that it fills — how do Esperanto, Ido and the rest do it? Or how do a majority of natural European languages do it, come to that. Nothing ought to be alien to the English vacuum.

  5. Stan says:

    Leif: It comes in handy now and then.

    Sharon: Good on you!

    Jack: Sometimes it just comes naturally.

    Yvonne: Exactly. It has a useful niche and deserves better status. A friend online said she included it in her linguistics thesis and hoped it wouldn’t be noticed or objected to, which it wasn’t. Use by use it may become normal again.

    Roger: ‘Nothing ought to be alien to the English vacuum.’ Indeed not, but try telling that to the diehard anti-singular-they faction.

  6. thnidu says:

    Esperanto does better here than with its 3rd person singular pronouns. There is only one 3rd person reflexive pronoun for singular and plural, masculine, feminine and neuter: si.

  7. The problem is the “them” part of themselves.

    I prefer “theirself” since “their” can readily be used for one person, according to increasing practice (avoiding the horrible his/her).

    There again, I don’t care much about rules, so long as meaning is clear.

    • I’ve used “theirself” once or twice myself. But then the problem with “theirself” is that it doesn’t mirror the construction of its counterparts: “himself” , “herself” and “themselves”. But, as you said, the meaning is still clear, so I’m OK with “theirself” as a variant.

  8. astraya says:

    The choice of ‘themself’ or ‘theirself’ depends on how you extrapolate the main series of reflexive pronouns. We have I-me-my-myself, you-you-your-yourself/yourselves, she-her-her-herself (is that based on the object form or the possessive form?), he-him-his-himself (hisself is possible but non-standard), we-us-our-ourselves, they-them-their-?themself/themselves/?theirself/?theirselves.
    Myself, yourself and ourselves are based on the possessive form; himself and themselves are based on the object form; and herself could be either.

  9. Stan says:

    thnidu: Thanks for clarifying Esperanto’s grammar on this point.

    Andrew: Them can readily be used for one person too, e.g. “if I do not know any body, it is impossible for me to talk to them” (from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey). The rules of English may be better thought of as tendencies or conventions, to avoid the stigma of breaking them. As you say, meaning trumps them anyway.

    J.P.: I’ve no problem with theirself either, though I don’t remember ever using it. A search on Twitter shows it to be in fairly regular use, chiefly where we might otherwise use themself or themselves.

    astraya: Because themself and theirself are both relatively non-standard and infrequent they may be more likely to be used irregularly, for example with theirself modelled on myself in phrases like “when someone hurts theirself” (an example from the search, linked above); themself and themselves would also be possible here.

  10. There’s also the African-American “theyself”, which I like better than “theirself”.

  11. […] “Be they fictional, factual, or self-narrated, the worlds we deal with are packed with uncerta… […]

  12. Stan says:

    Andrew: I haven’t discussed innit here, though I mentioned it in passing in a post elsewhere on banning slang. But the bottom half of this Language Log post from a few years ago has a good discussion. Welcome back, by the way.

    Indy: Oh yes! I’d forgotten about theyself. Padding out the set some more, there’s also non-standard meself and mesel’, which are quite common in colloquial speech in Ireland.

  13. Connect-the-Cloths says:

    Agreed. Whenever I use any tense of ‘themself’, I’m sure I’ve utilized it incorrectly “/ Even if I have not, it just looks like it… if that makes the least bit of sense. lol. How sad, words extinct.

    <3 Carsla

  14. wisewebwoman says:

    I love the gender neutrality of the word and found continued usage doesn’t make the hair at the back of my neck stand up as much as it used to. Thanks for the post Stan.

    XO
    WWW

  15. JP Mercado says:

    Reblogged this on Master Procrastinator and commented:
    As a proponent of Singular They, I also support its singular, reflexive form, “themself”. Like Singular They, “themself” is gender-neutral and has been used in the past.

  16. Vee says:

    I much prefer number agreement between them/their and selves plural.

    Linking this with the first-person plural ‘us’ and even non-count ‘some’ seems perfectly logical.

    Great question though.

  17. Stan says:

    Connect-the-Cloths: The word is far from extinct, I’m glad to say. The more it’s used, the more acceptable it’s likely to become.

    WWW: That happens to me too – sometimes it’s just a matter of getting used to a word or usage, and I think this one’s a grower.

    Vee: Grammatical agreement is important but imperfect; sometimes notional agreement serves the sense better. And what’s grammatical can shift over time: singular you was once anomalous, and objected to by some. Language and logic are bound to clash now and then.

  18. Warsaw Will says:

    A quick search of my blog shows I’ve used it three times. I admit I’m a serial user of singular they, and the plural themselves would sound odd to me in these examples:

    This could [have been said] … by the speaker themself in the same utterance

    It’s as though the speaker is thinking of themself as somebody else

    Look at these sentences and say whether the person mentioned should necessarily do it themself, Yes or No.

    • Stan says:

      These are good examples, Will. Thanks. Themselves wouldn’t sound odd to me in those sentences, but I’m glad you went with themself instead. Obviously it comes more naturally to some of us than others, but I’d say being a serial user of singular they, as you put it, could act as a gateway.

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