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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Reflecting on the reflexive pronoun ‘themself’

May 31, 2012

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.

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