The Negative Canon: ‘Themself’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

A recent post by Stan Carey about the use of itself to refer to a person has made me realise that in my post of 18 July I said nothing about the form themself.

Under the entry for themselves, the OED’s etymological note says the earlier hemselve(n) was superseded in the 14th century by themself, which was the normal form to around 1540, from which time themselfs and themselves became the standard form. There are 53 citations which include  themself, which appears to have at least some historical legitimacy.

In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters suggests that:

‘Themself’ is still more often heard than seen, and noted with reservations (‘colloquial’, ‘not widely accepted’) by those dictionaries that do register it.

She mentions citations in both the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and gives these examples:

‘How can someone hang themself?’

‘. . . the person involved may justify themself”

‘somebody starts talking to themself’

‘a candidate who just talks about themself’

She continues:

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!

I agree, but unfortunately the rest of the world seems not to. The BNC has 24 records for themself against 22,758 for themselves. The COCA figures are 98 and 96,135.

For more on reflexives, see my subsequent post Unruly Reflexives.

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7 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

7 responses to “The Negative Canon: ‘Themself’

  1. Zarine Arya

    How long ago was the use of ‘themself’, I wonder. It could certainly re-enter usage, especially since it has, as you’ve pointed out, a parallel in the singular ‘they’ and the merit of being gender-neutral. Language is the communication tool of millions, and not the personal fiefdom of a few prescriptive scholars. When teachers lay down the law, they should mention sometimes that this is ‘according to current practice’, and not carved in stone. Of course this leaves many of us vaguely uneasy about whether we are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a particular usage. No bets, but ‘themself’, red squiggly lines notwithstanding, could be standard in 10 years ;o) Who knows?

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    • Indeed. We are ‘right’ if what we say or write at a particular time and in a particular place achieves a particular communicative purpose. We are ‘wrong’ if it doesn’t.

      As the OED says, ‘themself’ was the normal form from the fourteenth century to about 1540.

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  2. I use singular they a lot and I know I occasionally use themself, and wonder about it a bit, as it can sound a bit odd, even though it makes logical sense.

    The British dictionaries I’ve checked hedge their bets somewhat:
    Oxford Online, Oxford Advanced Learner’s, Macmillan, Collins and Longman all list themself and give example sentences, but comment that ‘some’ or ‘many’ or even ‘most’ people consider it incorrect. Two dictionaries, Cambridge and Chambers, don’t list it at all.

    Here are some of those example sentences:

    ‘Does anyone here consider themself a good cook?’ (OALD)
    ‘a question that anyone starting in business has to ask themself’ (Macmillan)
    ‘the casual observer might easily think themself back in 1945’ (Oxford Online)
    ‘somebody who could not defend themself’ (Collins)
    It makes me happy to help someone help themself.

    I notice however, that when I was writing exercises for EFL learners, in a blog post called ‘In praise of singular they’ – I stuck to themselves, with examples such as:

    ‘Anybody thinking of taking up blogging should first think whatthey want to blog about, and ask themselves some basic questions’

    ‘Everybody should ask themselves very seriously whether they are ready’

    I think in my examples, anybody andeverybody‘ have a plural quality, even though they are singular, and so themselves works here, and I would say that also goes for the OALD and Macmillan examples above. But I’m not so sure whether themselves would work so well with the casual observer or somebody.

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  3. Pingback: Unruly Reflexives | Caxton

  4. The word has a natural niche in English, but its obscurity and perceived wrongness hinder its wider acceptance. It’s a pity. Sometimes themselves can do the job, but sometimes it can’t – and would in fact mislead. When I wrote in lengthy defence of themself, one reader rejected the word as “stupid, wrong, ungraceful, and unnecessary” and felt it would “mutilate the language”. Her comments just made me want to use it more.

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    • Indeed. She might like to know that the OED has 53 citations showing its use, and that they include a passage from Tyndale’s Bible. But there none as deaf as those who don’t want to hear.

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  5. Pingback: Reflecting on the reflexive pronoun ‘themself’ | Sentence first

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