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Should it be everyone for themself where grammar’s concerned?

Where do you stand regarding the pronoun, themself? Is it perfectly OK to use it, or do you reckon that it’s beyond the pale? When I blogged about reflexive pronouns a while ago, I promised to revisit this grammatical outsider. Judging by the debate on the Net, themself stirs up much passion, with several pundits confidently declaring that ‘themself is not a word’.

Well, much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, themself is a word and it has a long history to boot. Although most authorities agree that it isn’t currently part of the repertoire of accepted reflexive pronouns, themself is by no means a rarity in today’s English. There are 532 examples of this word on the Oxford English Corpus (OEC): it’s found in all types of writing, from media reports and blogs to academic texts.

The historical perspective

If we trace the story of themself back through time, an interesting picture emerges, giving us a wonderful testament to the variability of the parameters of standard English. What’s acceptable in one century can fall out of favour in the next, while sometimes the wheel comes full circle and a usage which once was frowned on is welcomed back to the standard English fold.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records themself from the 14th century. It doesn’t have a separate entry of its own, but a note at the entry for themselves informs us:

in standard English themself was the normal form to c1540, but disappeared c1570. Themselfs, themselves appears c1500, and became the standard form c1540.

So for around 150 years, themself (though ending with the singular suffix -self) was considered to be correct when used to refer to a plural subject. A little more OED-delving shows that a similar situation existed when it came to first person plural reflexive pronouns. The form ourself is first recorded in the 14th century, when it was an accepted usage. There must have been a move towards pluralizing the singular suffix -self to -selfs or -selves for plural reflexive pronouns in the early to mid 16th century, when the forms ourselves and themselves first appeared.

Returning to the OED note, themselfs (with only 26 examples on the OEC) is no longer acceptable and has largely dropped out of use, meaning that for almost 500 years the main standard reflexive pronoun which corresponds to the plural forms they and them is the plural form themselves:

It’s late summer and the locals are sunning themselves on the beach.
Gradually, harsher realities began to make themselves felt.

In other words, if you’re referring to a third person plural subject (the locals and harsher realities in the above examples), themselves is the correct reflexive pronoun.

Themself today

There are two distinct ways in which people use themself in current English, both of which you should avoid if writing for college, work, or in other formal contexts. However, it’s helpful to be aware of why themself frequently crops up.

  • Themself used to refer to a singular subject

?  It’s not an expensive way for somebody to make themself feel good.
?  Anyone would find themself thinking similar thoughts.

This use of themself, referring back to a singular subject of unspecified gender, corresponds to the singular use of they, them, and their, which I’ve blogged about before. For instance:

How much can you tell about someone from their choice of Wellington boot?
If your child is thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

Given that it’s now largely acceptable to use they, them, or their instead of the more long-winded ‘he or she’, ‘him or her’, or ‘his or her’ (especially in conjunction with indefinite pronouns such as anyone or somebody) it might be argued that, logically, it should also be OK to use themself, it being viewed as the corresponding singular form of themselves. However, this isn’t yet the case, so beware of themself for now! The correct versions of the opening examples in this section should be:

✓  It’s not an expensive way for somebody to make themselves feel good.
  Anyone would find themselves thinking similar thoughts.

Of course, if you dislike the use of gender-neutral third-person plural pronouns for singular subjects, or you’re working to a style guide that prohibits them, you should reword the sentences so as to incorporate gender-specific third-person singular pronouns instead:

✓  It’s not an expensive way for somebody to make himself or herself feel good.
  Anyone would find himself or herself thinking similar thoughts.

  • Themself used to refer to a plural subject

A fair proportion of the OEC’s examples of themself are instances where this singular reflexive pronoun refers to a plural subject, as follows:

✗  Not all people who call themself pagan actively practise “magick”.
✗  It’s not uncommon for writers to put parts of themself into their work.

If you read them carefully they strike you as pretty odd, don’t they? You’ll be relieved to hear that such uses are indisputably incorrect. As we’ve seen, while there might be a case for arguing that themself is a useful form for singular gender-neutral subjects, there can surely be no logic in using the singular reflexive pronoun themself if the sentence has a plural subject (people and writers in the above examples). The correct versions are:

✓  Not all people who call themselves pagan actively practise “magick”.
  It’s not uncommon for writers to put parts of themselves into their work.

To sum up, the wheel has not yet come full circle and themself remains a standard English outcast. . . for now. You can be sure that Oxford’s lexicographers are keeping their eye on the situation: given the strong evidence for themself in all types of writing, it may well merit reconsideration within the next 20 years or so. 

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