This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.
Under the entry for themselves, the OED’s etymological note says the earlier hemselve(n) was superseded in the 14th century by themself, which was the normal form to around 1540, from which time themselfs and themselves became the standard form.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’
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.