Singular they has featured a few times in the lingua-blog world of late, with Motivated Grammar noting its antiquity and Language Hat linking to Language Hippie’s sensible defence of it. On a tangent to this, I want to look at the lesser known themself, the status of which I’ve been musing and tweeting about recently:
Gill Francis at Macmillan Dictionary Blog posed the question: Is there a case for the pronoun themself? The example she leads with, from a Bristol City Council leaflet, is a good illustration of the gap in standard English which themself would naturally fill. But because the word isn’t standard, people often avoid it. Or it doesn’t occur to them, or it’s strange and they’re unsure if it’s permitted. Et cetera.
Yet many people do use it. To see how and where, in more-or-less real time, you can browse Twitter search. You can also view (mostly blogged) examples aggregated on Wordnik – whose themself page asks: “Did you mean themselves?” No, but thanks for asking!
The OED says themself was first recorded in the 14thC and was normal until about 1540, when themselfs began to take over – itself later superseded by themselves. It finds the word “apparently more logical” than singular themselves but acknowledges it’s “not widely accepted”.
Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says that “since the 1970s or so it has been revived as a gender-neutral singular reflexive pronoun, taking the place of himself or herself”, and offers these examples:
Walking through Pilsen, the casual observer might easily think themself back in 1945 (London Times, 1990)
With the unselfconscious absorption of someone working something out for themself (J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 1991)
Robert Burchfield says that after its standard spell centuries ago, themself slipped under the radar only to re-emerge in the 1980s as a “remarkable by-product of the search for gender-neutral pronouns”. He concludes that it “can hardly be regarded as standard – yet.”
Burchfield’s caution is amplified in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993), which deprecates themself severely as “substandard”, a “shibboleth”, and “limited to Vulgar English speech or imitations of it”.
Bryan Garner is less disparaging, noting in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage the word’s appearance in Canadian legislation (as anybody can see for themself; if a judge decides to recuse themself). But he points out that many people “bristle at the sight or the sound of it”, and that it therefore risks distracting readers.
I haven’t done a head count, but I did see some bristling when I mentioned it on Twitter. Yet themself appears in the writing of Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, hardly peddlers of “substandard” English. It’s widely perceived this way, though: Macmillan Dictionary says most people consider it incorrect, while the Chicago Manual of Style calls it nonstandard but says “it has become common in speech and informal writing”.
I’ve used themself several times on this blog, albeit sometimes only to refer to it. Most recently, in a comment on my last post, I wrote about “whether the party purporting to apologise is deceiving themself or being disingenuous”. I might have rewritten the line – it’s a bit clunky – but when I went to insert the pronoun and found that themself came naturally, I let it be; opportunities to employ it are not all that frequent.
Irregular Webcomic #1769, by David Morgan-Mar
The increase in use of themself in edited writing is gradual but evident, as this Google ngram curve indicates:
The 1920s surge may be due to publication of The Real Dope (1919), a novel by Ring Lardner that uses the word at least 20 times. I found this out from the Corpus of Historical American English, whose bar graph has an even more pronounced spike; you can click on this one to read examples of themself from different decades:
The Corpus of Contemporary American English offers further data, including a genre breakdown. Spoken English is themself’s usual province – unsurprisingly, since it’s generally a more casual mode of expression.
Sometimes speakers say themself and quickly ‘correct’ themselves, or they say something curiously muddled like “it’s every man for themself”, or “the average citizen started literally arming themself or herself”. Again, you can click the pic to investigate further:
It’s interesting to look at what antecedents occur with themself. Usually it’s singular: often who, sometimes someone, everyone, nobody, or more specifically the person, the witness, the guest, the patient, etc. And occasionally it’s plural, for instance the families, the women, boys, the American people, or plural they, which makes one wonder why themselves wasn’t chosen.
The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.), calls singular themself “informal” and plural themself “nonstandard”. They overlap in instructive ways. Consider this example from NPR’s All Things Considered (1999):
Yeah, he was terrible. Mainly because there was no audience in those days. The networks didn’t allow audiences, and comedians had to play basically to the band leader or to themself (sic).
Although comedians is plural, each comedian in turn is what was meant, so themselves could erroneously imply that each comedian was playing to other comedians. Using themself retains the sense: it means each comedian was playing only to himself or herself – or to put it concisely, to themself. Using each comedian would have been less problematic, but we can’t always plan for such details in normal speech.
Here’s a similar case from COCA, this time with a more explicitly singular antecedent:
when you got your members, your delegates to vote to suspend the police commissioner or have them suspend themself…
This concerns a police commissioner suspending himself or herself; the gender is irrelevant or unknown, hence them – it spares us the ridiculous “have him or her suspend himself or herself”. So what reflexive pronoun follows? Themselves, being plural, doesn’t match the notionally singular them; themself was the convenient and rational option.
It’s not just informal language where themself would be of benefit. On his NYT blog After Deadline, Philip Corbett recently examined the following line: “Neither Mr. Bo nor Ms. Gu have been given an opportunity to defend themselves publicly.” He observes:
The neither/nor construction yields a singular subject and would require “has been given.” But that would create a problem with the reflexive “themselves.” So rephrase, perhaps like this: “Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu have not been given an opportunity to defend themselves publicly.”
As James Eagle points out, themself would fix that. And maybe it should. Mr Corbett’s suggested revision ties Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu closer together than is warranted in the context, since they are accused of quite separate transgressions. So the neither/nor construction is appropriate, and themself – were it standard – would slot neatly into the pronominal slot:
Neither Mr. Bo nor Ms. Gu has been given an opportunity to defend themself publicly.
Arnold Zwicky wrote about themself at Language Log a few years ago, assembling snippets of commentary on the word from various usage authorities and reporting on its appearance in literature, journalism, and linguistics research (the last is “pretty sparse”). He says Burchfield is probably right in thinking singular themself is “the wave of the future.”
Neal Whitman agrees. In his do’s and don’ts for singular “they”, at the Visual Thesaurus, he says themself is “making a comeback”, and he recommends the following distinction: themself for singular they; themselves for plural they. This makes sense to me.
Sometimes usages we recoil from become normalised through use and exposure. So don’t write off themself too quickly if it rubs you up the wrong way. If on the other hand you already use it, I’d love to hear about that too.
Though our reach is modest, we all play a part in shaping the conventions of English usage. If we keep using themself, it may eventually become standard again. In the meantime, aside from contexts where house style restricts usage, each of us can choose for ourself.
Update: I’ve looked again at the unsung value of singular themself, with additional examples of its use in literature and journalism showing it to be “no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions”.
Barrie England, at Caxton, quotes (and agrees with) Pam Peters’ Cambridge Guide to English Usage:
The singular reference in ‘themself’ obviously serves a purpose, especially after an indefinite noun or pronoun. If we allow the use of ‘they’/’them’/’their’ for referring to the singular, ‘themself’ seems more consistent than ‘themselves‘. We make use of ”yourself‘ alongside ‘yourselves’ in just the same way. ‘Themself’ has the additional advantage of being gender-free, and thus preferable to both ‘himself’ and ‘himself/herself‘. It’s time to reinstate it to the set of reflexive pronouns!