The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

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.

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Non-restrictive ‘that’, that can be ambiguous

December 15, 2013

Non-restrictive relative clauses, which are structured like the one you’re reading now, are usually set off by a comma followed by the relative pronoun which or who. Very occasionally that is used, and its rarity (and sometime ambiguity) sounds my Curious Grammar Klaxon.

A note on terminology: non-restrictive relative clauses are also called non-defining or supplementary relatives, distinct from restrictive, defining, or integrated relatives. (There’s more on this and associated “which-hunting” in my oversized that/which grammar post.)

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar says non-restrictive that relatives are “extremely rare and really only marginally present in Standard English”. True enough, but I tend to come across at least a few a year. Here’s an oldish one in J. W. N. Sullivan’s 1927 book Beethoven:

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The referee itself

August 3, 2013

In Barry Blaustein’s wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, then-WWF supremo Vince McMahon has just given Darren Drozdov his new character name, Puke, and is explaining how he’ll be introduced to the audience. You might want to skip the quotation if you’re eating:

So, after you’ve regurgitated on one of your opponents, or on the referee itself, then of course the ring announcer would, y’know, then say your name.

You can watch it here – go to 06.23:

The phrase the referee itself is grammatically interesting. Wrestling referees are adult people, and when it or itself is used to refer to a person, it’s usually a very young person or a part of a person – not an adult of unknown or unspecified gender.

But none of the alternative pronouns is perfect in that position. The referee himself is the most obvious (the job is male-dominated), but it is sexist; himself or herself (or similar) would be pedantic; themselves strikes me as awkward here, though I like singular they; and themself is rare, and does not occur to most speakers.

So the choice of itself, made on the spur of the moment, lets McMahon avoid constructions that are problematic for various reasons – but in doing so objectifies the referee in an unusual way. (Compare with the use of whom to refer to houses, which I heard in a documentary on The Truman Show.)

Omitting the intensive pronoun entirely would be the simplest solution, since it’s not essential here. But in casual speech we don’t normally get a chance to weigh up options like this. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Pronouns, humans, and dormice

July 23, 2013

The kinds of things relative pronouns refer to in modern English can be divided roughly as follows:

that – things and people

which – things, but not normally people

who – normally people, not things, sometimes animals or human-like entities (“animate but not human”, says Robert Burchfield; “having an implication of personality”, says the OED)

When it comes to relative pronouns, animals often aren’t accorded the same grammatical status as people. We’re more likely to say The crow that was here than The crow who was here, though of course it varies with the speaker, type of animal, and context.

Dormouse in a house

So I was struck by a line in last week’s Galway Advertiser reporting the recent entry of the dormouse to Ireland’s ecology (we already have the wood mouse and house mouse):

Dormice are woodland animals, who nest in shrubs and hedgerows, particularly those containing hazel (as their name suggests) or brambles.

I haven’t looked into it, but I’d bet that of references to dormice in equivalent contexts, at least 95% would use that or which rather than who.

Not everyone supports this extended use of who, but it is defensible; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage quotes lines by John Updike (“the hamster who had died”) and Stanley Kauffman (“Tonto is his cat, whom he walks on a leash”) showing its literary acceptability.

Dormice of the world, welcome to Ireland – and to the Grammatical Who Club.

[image source]

Belief systems, which erode clarity

June 11, 2013

I’ve written before about a comma(,) which muddles meaning, and a comma with restrictive which. The first was in a newspaper editorial, the second in a de Maupassant translation; both were inserted seemingly because of an unfortunate belief in the bogus rule about that and which.

Here, inevitably, is another example, this one in bell hooks’ book All About Love:

Ultimately, though, the authors remained wedded to belief systems, which suggest that there are basic inherent differences between women and men.

The appearance after belief systems of a comma followed by which induces a pause and primes the reader to expect a relative clause about the consequences of remaining wedded to belief systems in general. But that’s not what happens.

First, uninflected suggest implies that the antecedent (what which refers to) is plural, i.e., belief systems, not the (singular) fact that certain authors remain wedded to them. Then the rest of the line shows that the writer is talking about specific belief systems.

So the relative clause is restrictive – the type of belief systems referred to is semantically restricted. Adding a comma makes it non-restrictive, which makes no sense here. I had to reread the sentence to parse it properly, this time ignoring the misleading comma.

Maybe the writer used which rather than that to avoid repeating that (“belief systems that suggest that”), though of course the second that is optional. Or maybe she just preferred which there. Either relative pronoun would have been fine. Adding a comma was not.

Again I’m inclined to think the comma was added by an editor who remains wedded to a belief system* which misinforms them about the grammaticality of which in restrictive clauses in all varieties of English.

Further reading: a discussion among editors on the that/which pseudo-rule. Or see the links above for more detailed discussion.


* Note the complete lack of a comma here. Savour it.

Touchous about “whom”

April 9, 2013

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, Touchous, honeyfuggle, and whoopensocker, celebrates a few regional terms in US English, and suggests some good sources for learning more about them:

A curious recent example is unthoughted, meaning thoughtless, with the related adverb unthoughtedly and noun unthoughtedness (heard mainly in the South and South Midlands, according to DARE). Given another spin of the language-change wheel, it’s easy to imagine this being the normal morphology and thoughtless the obscure one.

More exotically, consider the BFG-esque honeyfuggle, an old-fashioned term meaning (among other things) “to flatter, sweet-talk; to wheedle; to ballyhoo”. There’s a related noun, equally fun to say: honeyfoogler, meaning a flatterer. [Read the rest.]

While I’m on the subject: DARE – the Dictionary of American Regional English – has hit financial trouble and is seeking help. It appears, as far as I can tell from samples and reviews, to be a masterwork of modern lexicography, and deserves rescuing.


Next I revisit the fuss over whom, in To whom it deeply concerns. This was triggered by an article at the Atlantic that quotes me and other usage specialists on the word’s declining status. Some of the comments there were, shall we say, on the alarmist side.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that language is somehow not supposed to change, when in fact change is one of its central qualities. English has survived the loss of umpteen inflections, with no significant effects on its expressiveness. People who lament whom’s decline, and protest that they like the word, may continue using it – they needn’t stop just because it’s becoming less popular.

Nor is whom sure to disappear: there’s every chance it will persist in set phrases (for whom the bell tolls) and, more generally, right after prepositions, especially in formal settings (The applicants, all of whom live locally, will be notified today). Tellingly, COCA (1990–2012) has 17 examples of all of who versus 1429 of all of whom.

I also discuss why whom has fallen from favour, among other things.

Comments, as always, are welcome at either location, and my archived articles are here.

I guess that’s why they call ‘thats’ the ‘whose’

March 20, 2013

Reading a review of the 1983 fantasy film Hundra (a feminist knockoff of Conan the Barbarian), I came across a pretty unusual word, albeit one that almost looks perfectly normal. Film historian Paul Mavis, at DVD Talk, says the film’s creators:

set about to make a spoofy fantasy adventure thats focus would be on a gorgeous, blonde, man-hating super-warrior who was subservient to no one.

Few readers would pause over that thats: its meaning is clear in context, and it draws little attention to itself, its ungrammaticality thoroughly overshadowed by the line’s sensational imagery. Who’d be distracted by the subtle asymmetry of English’s relative pronoun system when there are man-hating super-warriors striding about?

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